Piaget and Rand


Recommended Posts

Piaget and Rand

I’ll collect here some observations on conceptual relations and possible historical relations between Piaget and Rand, taken from my essay on uses of the concept integration in Rand from ’43 to ’71. In subsequent posts, we can add further relationships between Piaget and Rand, concordant or discordant relationships, in their pictures of child development and in their background philosophies insofar as they influence those pictures.

Excerpt from'>Part 1 of “From Integrity to Calculus” (2012)

In July 1966, Ayn Rand issued the first installment of her treatise Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. She opened the first section “Cognition and Measurement” with an idea that had not appeared in her previous writings: “Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is . . . an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration.” Integration was an old key in her work. Differentiation was new.

. . .

In 1965 and in the months of ’66 preceding the unveiling ITOE, Rand and Branden (1965, 53) wrote some on child cognitive and emotional development, and Rand wrote of more integrations distinctive of human life.

The process of a child’s development consists of acquiring knowledge, which requires the development of his capacity to grasp and deal with an ever-widening range of abstractions. This involves the growth of two interrelated but different chains of abstractions, two hierarchical structures of concepts, which should be integrated, but seldom are: the cognitive and the normative. The first deals with knowledge of the facts of reality—the second, with the evaluation of these facts. The first forms the epistemological foundation of science—the second, of morality and art. (Rand 1965a, 10)

The following month, Rand penned “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art.” In this essay, there is a five-paragraph stretch summarizing the nature and function of concepts. There we read of integration, of identification and integration, and of the ability of concepts to extend the range of consciousness. And we read: “A concept is like a mathematical series of specifically defined units, going off in both directions, open at both ends and including all units of that particular kind” (1965b, 15). We do not read of differentiation.

. . .

In its selective recreations of reality, according to Rand, art isolates and integrates aspects of reality to yield a new concrete that can serve certain functions for the human psyche. . . . As with her discussions of concepts and their formation to this point, Rand writes of isolation and integration, but not of differentiation.

Then comes ITOE, where Rand opens its first section “Cognition and Measurement’ with a proclamation that consciousness is “an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration” (1966–67, 5). She says “discriminated awareness begins at the level of percepts” (ibid.) I would say this is not quite right in that a newborn can discriminate his mother’s voice from other voices, and he discriminates directions of sources of sounds (. . .). But Rand is on to something. Recall that she had tied experience at the level of percepts to awareness of entities (1961, 19). It is true that in every percept, we discriminate its object from other things or from background. Then too, we discriminate components within its object.

Discrimination in perceptual consciousness had already been part of her conception of the perception of entities. In Atlas she had spoken of the infant learning to distinguish solid objects and learning that Mother is one thing, a curtain is another, and neither can turn into the other (1957, 1040–41). Of later, conceptual development, Branden had written: “As the child grows, his intellectual field widens: he learns language, he begins to grasp abstractions, he generalizes, he makes increasingly subtle discriminations, he looks for principles, he acquires the ability to project a distant and more distant future” (1965, 53; emphasis added).

Rand’s emphasis on integration in childhood cognitive and affective development was in tune with the thinking of Piaget (e.g.'>1954). For Piaget the main English terms would be assimilation and accommodation, denoting technical concepts of his which, with coordination between them, are the essence of development. Here is an example from lectures in 1953:

In psychological assimilation viewed from the cognitive perspective [as distinct from the affective perspective], objects are perceived relative to existing perceptual schemes. Assimilation may, therefore, be perceptual, sensorimotor, or conceptual. . . . Conceptual assimilations are those where a new object is conceived or understood because it is incorporated into forms or structures of internal action or thought. In other words, they are assimilations into the systems of mental operations that the subject has constructed.

The cognitive aspect of psychological accommodation is seen if the object resists assimilation into any existing scheme. In that case, the schemes are not adapted to the new object and must be modified. (Piaget 1953, 4–5)

Not only integration, but differentiation too, and by those names, loom large in Piaget’s studies in generalization, which he composed in the years after Rand’s ITOE (Campbell 2009, 157–59; note also'>*). Herbert Spencer, in his Principles of Psychology, had written: “Under its most general aspect therefore, all mental action whatever is definable as the continuous differentiation and integration of states of consciousness” (1855,'>333; see Smith 1981,'>119). Perhaps Rand had been familiar with Spencer’s theme of differentiation and integration in his thinking about biology and epistemology.

Discrimination or differentiation had always been part of Rand’s conception of consciousness as identification. That was logically entailed. But it is with her closer analysis of concepts—their structure, function, and genesis—in ITOE that differentiation becomes prominent.


Branden, N. 1965. What Is Psychological Maturity? The Objectivist Newsletter (ON) 4(11):53.

Campbell, R. L. 2009. Constructive Processes: Abstraction, Generalization, and Dialectics. In The Cambridge Companion to Piaget. U. Müller, M. Carpendale, and L. Smith, editors. Cambridge.

Piaget, J. 1953. Intelligence and Affectivity – Their Relationship During Child Development. T. Brown and C. Kaegi, translators. 1981. Annual Reviews.

——. 1954. The Construction of Reality in the Child. Routledge.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

——. 1961. The Objectivist Ethics. In The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet.

——. 1965a. Art and Moral Treason. ON 4(3):9–10, 12–14.

——. 1965b. The Psycho-Epistemology of Art. ON 4(4):15–16, 18.

——. 1966–67. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Reprinted from The Objectivist 5(July–Dec), 6 (Jan–Feb). Meridian.

Smith, G. H. 1981. Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Causation. The Journal of Libertarian Studies 5(2):113–52.

Spencer, H. 1855. The Principles of Psychology. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.

Excerpt from'>Part 3 of “From Integrity to Calculus” (2012)

. . .

I mentioned in Part 1 that Rand’s emphasis on integration in childhood cognitive and affective development was in tune with the thinking of Jean Piaget. I quoted from some 1953 lectures of his, wherein he defined two of his key concepts in development, which are assimilation and accommodation. Those are processes coming under the concept integration in Rand’s system. The similarity between Rand and Piaget is even plainer when we turn to John Flavell’s The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget (1963). Unlike the lectures from which I was quoting, Flavell’s text was easily available to Rand and her circle. (By the late ’60’s, my college friends and I were very wrapped up in ITOE and Piaget’s genetic epistemology and their relationships; works about Piaget’s work were readily available. See further, Hsueh 2009.)

In this text, one reads of Piaget’s concept of the schema in cognitive development, which is especially important for thought prior to language (see also Jetton 1998, 104–7). Rand makes brief contact with a schema of the image type when she speaks of the child’s iconic representation in drawing man as with oval torso, round head, and stick limbs (ITOE 13; Boydstun 1990, 16–18).

In Piaget’s conception,

a schema is a cognitive structure which has reference to a class of similar action sequences . . . . / In discussing sensory-motor development, Piaget speaks of the schema of sucking, the schema of prehension, the schema of sight, and so on. . . . / To say that a grasping sequence forms a schema is to imply more than the simple fact that the infant shows organized grasping behavior. It implies that assimilatory functioning has generated a specific cognitive structure, an organized disposition to grasp objects in repeated occasions. It implies that there has been a change in over-all cognitive organization such that a new behavioral totality has become part of the child’s intellectual repertoire. (Flavell 1963, 52–53)

With Piaget’s concept of schema in hand, one reads a little later “A Piagetian schema . . . is always the product of the differentiation, generalization, and integration of earlier schemas . . .” (Flavell 1963, 73). Differentiation and integration, Rand will announce in 1966, are active processes essential to all consciousness as a state of awareness (ITOE 6).

That not only integration but differentiation should become highlighted when Rand came to presenting her theory of concepts and definition was natural. Why did she go on to announce at the outset of setting forth her theory of concepts that differentiation and integration are essential in all consciousness? To be sure, it is understandable that she should be setting her view of conceptual consciousness in wider patterns of consciousness. Then too, yes, differentiation and integration are implicit in the idea of consciousness as identification. And yes, years past Rand might have read Spencer saying differentiation and integration are essential to all consciousness.

In Principles of Efficient Thinking, Barbara Branden had spoken of full mental clarity as “a state in which one perceives, judges, connects, and integrates the full conceptual meaning of every aspect of that with which one is dealing” (1962, 161). She had included some discussion of definitions and concepts (165–70), and that material, including the examples, was later reused by Rand in ITOE. This 1962 discussion of definitions and concepts by Ms. Branden is replete with references to processes of differentiation and integration. There is no mention of the essential role of that dynamic duo in all consciousness.

It is possible that Rand had the generalization in her hand for some time, but never thought to show that card until ITOE. In the alternative, it is possible she had only recently come squarely to the generalization.

I mentioned that in Flavell 1963 Rand and her circle could readily come across the Piagetian dynamics of differentiation and integration at the preconceptual level of cognition, at the level of schemas. That would be an inch towards the differentiation-integration generalization.

Here would be another, though I’ll trace a loop whose line integral is nine inches by way of gaining this other inch. In “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand had written:

Now in what manner does a human being discover the concept of ‘value’? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of ‘good or evil’ in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are its first step in the realm of evaluation. (1961, 17)

Leonard Peikoff reports “Miss Rand used to be a strong advocate of what she called ‘the pleasure-purpose principle’. She meant the idea that on any level, whether we’re talking about thought or action, you cannot function without a purpose that brings you pleasure, something you want to achieve, that you enjoy achieving” (1983, 325). Suppose Rand had that idea far back and, like the dual cognitive-evaluative development she expressed in the preceding paragraph (1961), had this idea in advance of 1963.

Flavell 1963 included a summary of Piaget’s Paris lectures I quoted in Part 1. Flavell reported Piaget’s view that

affect and cognition can be necessarily involved in all human adaptation. The affective-motivational aspect provides the énergetique of behavior while the cognitive aspect provides the structure (affect cannot of itself create structures, although it does influence the selection of the reality content upon which the structures operate). (81)

Flavell writes that in Piaget’s view “cognitions with primary affective, interpersonal content function like those of a more purely intellectual sort” (1963, 80). He quotes from a 1951 paper of Piaget:

This generalized application of initial affective schemas raises no particular problems with regard to the mechanism of assimilation which is necessarily involved. It is the same as that of sensory-motor or intuitive assimilation. . . . It is the same assimilation because personal schemas, like all others, are both intellectual and affective. (quoted in Flavell 1963, 81)

With ITOE just around the corner, Rand writes that a child’s development involves growth of two interrelated chains of abstractions, one cognitive, the other normative (1965a, 10). “While cognitive abstractions identify the facts, normative abstractions evaluate the facts, thus prescribing a choice of values and a course of action” (1965b, 15). Rand soon adds a third distinct chain of abstractions interrelated with the two previous chains. Like Piaget, she sees the cognitive chain as basic.

Cognitive abstractions are formed by the criterion of: What is essential? (epistemologically essential to distinguish one class of existents from all others). Normative abstractions are formed by the criterion of: What is good? Esthetic abstractions are formed by the criterion of: What is important? (1966, 34–35)

If Rand had exposure to Piaget, through Flavell 1963 or through other conduits, she could have adapted what was concordant therein to her own vocabulary and picture of child cognitive and affective development. Piaget’s discernment of the dual strands, cognitive and affective, in child development and in all human adaptation would strike a chord with Rand’s “pleasure-purpose principle.” That chord could resound in the dual chains, cognitive and normative, in Rand 1965a and 1965b, reformed into the triple chain of Rand 1966. Rand first took the normative chain to be the epistemological foundation of art (1965a, 10), but then gave art its own abstraction chain interrelated to the two other chains (1966, 34). . . .

. . .

In the creation of a work of art, on Rand’s understanding, there is selection, which entails differentiation, followed by integration in a new concrete for respite-perception in concrete: human life in its abstract and protracted effort of thought and valuation. The process of art’s creation or appreciation is a type of construction requiring differentiations and integrations, cousin to those at work in the journey of consciousness from perceptions to abstract concepts (1965b, 15–16). That is our second inch toward the generalization that all consciousness as an active process involves both differentiation and integration in an essential way.

Piaget’s discernment of dual processes of differentiation and integration in preconceptual, schematic cognition would strike a chord with Rand’s stress on those dual processes in definitions of concepts (which had been voiced by Ms. Branden in 1962). That chord advanced the other, more straightforward inch towards Rand’s differentiation-integration generalization. The Piaget of Flavell 1963 was in happy time for the dawn that is ITOE.


Boydstun, S. 1990. Capturing Concepts. Objectivity 1(1):13–41.

Branden, B. 1962. Principles of Efficient Thinking. In The Vision of Ayn Rand. 2009. Cobden.

Flavell, J. H. 1963. The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. D. Van Nostrand.

Hsueh, Y. 2009. Piaget in the United States 1925–1971. In The Cambridge Companion to Piaget. U. Müller, M. Carpendale, and L. Smith, editors. Cambridge.

Jetton, M. 1998. Pursuing Similarity. Objectivity 2(6):41–130.

Peikoff, L. 1983. Understanding Objectivism. M. Berliner, editor. 2012. NAL.

Rand, A. 1961. The Objectivist Ethics. In The Virtue of Selfishness. 1964. Signet.

——. 1965a. Art and Moral Treason. The Objectivist Newsletter (ON) 4(3):9–10, 12–14.

——. 1965b. The Psycho-Epistemology of Art. ON 4(4):15–16, 18.

——. 1966. Art and Sense of Life. The Objectivist 5(Mar):33–40.

——. 1966–67. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Reprinted from The Objectivist 5(July–Dec), 6(Jan–Feb). Meridian.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Leonard Peikoff reports “Miss Rand used to be a strong advocate of what she called ‘the pleasure-purpose principle’. She meant the idea that on any level, whether we’re talking about thought or action, you cannot function without a purpose that brings you pleasure, something you want to achieve, that you enjoy achieving” (1983, 325).

While it is true that all human actions have a purpose, i. e. they are goal-directed, pleasure and enjoyment in achieving the goal are not necessarily involved in the action.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


Peikoff may agree with you on that. In the surrounding text of the lecture, the key idea is personal interest. If a line or area of inquiry is personally interesting, there is sweet anticipation of the end-capture of truth. I would add that sometimes part of the anticipation of intellectual work will be anticipation of possible surprise including unforeseeable beauty. Then too, I notice, some actions, like going running, have their pleasure of a rough sort during the action itself.

Peikoff went on to talk about emotions being crucial for any kind of creative work, including any kind of intellectual creative work. I remember---for the really, really creative work of fiction writing---John Steinbeck speaking of "the indescribable joy of creation" (from preface to East of Eden).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

~~ Follow-on to #2 and #3 ~~

I see in the Subject Index for Objectivity that there are entries for Pleasure of Imaginative Reflection and for Pleasure and Interest. Under the former, Merlin Jetton relates Kant’s ideas concerning judgments of beauty ('>1991, 66). Under the latter, Marsha Enright argues from the behavior of infants that listening to speech and speaking are inherently pleasurable for them ('>1991). Further, of child learning more generally, she writes:

The survival value of many of the things humans (and other animals) must learn is not directly experienced by the young, but motivation to learn is essential to development. Positive feedback from adults helps provide motivation for the young to acquire knowledge and practice the skills necessary for adult survival and happiness.

Maria Montessori argued that the mastery of skills in itself was highly pleasurable for children, but she also recognized that the guidance of the child by the adult is essential for the child to learn properly. (85)

Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook is accessible's+own+hand+book&hl=en&sa=X&ei=oZ_ZUMPOGpLG0AGJuoDYCg&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=interest&f=false'>here. Search on interest and on pleasure.

The issue of pleasure’s role in interest is also touched on by Jay Friedenberg ('>1993). He quotes the report of Copleston on the view of James Ward (1843–1925):

The content of consciousness consists of “presentations”; but these form a continuum. . . . Consciousness involves selective attention to this or that feature or aspect of the presentational continuum; and this is an activity of the subject under the influence of feelings of pleasure and pain. It is, however, a mistake to regard the subject of consciousness as merely a spectator, a purely cognitive subject. For the conative aspect of experience is fundamental, and the selective activity in question is teleological in character, the active subject selecting and attending to presentational data in view of an end or purpose. (45)

Both Rand and Piaget would pull the reins on “the conative aspect of experience is fundamental,” but otherwise they would run with the view of Ward as shown in the block quote.

In addition to Rand’s dual cross-tied chains of cognitive and affective abstraction, she writes of a general background of them that forms in childhood (age three and beyond):

In the flux of a child’s countless impressions and momentary conclusions, the crucial ones are those that pertain to the nature of the world around him, and to the efficacy of his mental efforts. The words that would name the essence of the long wordless process taking place in a child’s mind are two questions: Where am I?—and: Is it worth it?

The child’s answers are not set in words: they are set in the form of certain reactions which become habitual, i.e., automatized. He does not conclude that the universe is “benevolent” and that thinking is important—he develops an eager curiosity about every new experience, and a desire to understand it. (1970, 885)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 years later...

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now