Subject Object Cognition. V A Lektorsky 1980
The epistemology of metaphysical materialism starts from a premise that is entirely correct: reality is understood as a system of material structures connected in definite ways by certain relations and actual dependences. This conception emphasises that both subject and object must be considered as definite interconnected material systems. It is correctly noted that the subject is not some supra-material being outside the objective real world but is included in the objective reality itself. “Subject” and “object” are distinctions within this reality. Therefore both the interactions of subject and object and the processes within the subject are objectively real.
In metaphysical materialism, however, these correct materialist premises are combined with assumptions which drive the study of some fundamental epistemological questions into a cul-de-sac, and also compel one to make serious concessions to subjectivism on some points, abandoning the materialist theory of reflection. We refer here to the interpretation of the subject as a purely natural physical body or biological being interacting with the world of material objects according to natural laws, laws given by nature. This conception of the interrelation between the cognizing subject and the cognized object is unacceptable in a scientific, dialectical and materialist, epistemology.
Let us try to point out the fundamental defects of interpretation of cognition as interaction of two natural systems.
Already in antiquity, the view is formed that the knowledge of an object results from a causal impact of the object on the subject. True, that action is interpreted in an original way: an “image” of the object is separated or “emanates” from it and floats in the space between the object and the subject; getting into the subject, the image assumes the quality of knowledge.
The philosophy of the New Times lends a different shape to a basically similar conception of the mechanism of origin of knowledge. In terms of the ideas of classical mechanics, which had taken shape by that time, only material physical bodies can affect one another, the only qualities immediately inherent in the bodies being density, extension, and form. There can be no question of “emanation” of “images.” Bodies can leave only material traces of impact in each other. The result of the physical impact on the sense organs (whether it be direct impact, as in the case of tactile impressions, or a mediated one, as in the case of vision) is sense perception – the primary and basic kind of knowledge. All other kinds or types of knowledge are, in one way or another, derivative from perception. Therefore to discover its mechanism would in fact mean to discover the essence of knowledge, of the cognitive relation in general.
Here is how one of the classical adherents of such conceptions, the English philosopher John Locke, reasoned: “... Simple ideas [that was the term Locke used for what is now called sense perception – V. L.] are not fictions of our fancies, but the natural and regular productions of things without us, really operating upon us; and so carry with them all the conformity which is intended, or which our state requires; for they represent to us things under those appearances which they are fitted to produce in us; whereby we are enabled to distinguish the sorts of particular substances, to discern the states they are in, and so to take them for our necessities, and apply them to our uses. And this conformity between our simple ideas and the existence of things is sufficient for real knowledge.”
It is by the specific formations arising in the subject himself, by the “ideas” or sense perceptions, that man judges of the really existing objects. The relation of the system of interconnected perceptions to the real objects reminds one of the relation of a map to the actual landscape. The map is not the terrain itself. At the same time a man who can read the map will clearly understand the interrelations of the real objects in the area described by the map.
The argument seems clear and logical. The development of modern neurophysiology indeed describes a great many dependences characterising causal chains that form in the external objects, then pass through man’s senses and further to the brain. These descriptions take into account the laws of diffusion, reflection and diffraction of light in the case of vision, the specificity of the spread of sound oscillation in the case of hearing, the structure of the retina, the laws of excitation of the conductor nerves, etc. It is important to emphasise that modern studies have established that the cortex plays an exceptionally important role in the process of perception. Where a certain centre (visual, auditory, etc.) is damaged, the corresponding perception process is disrupted.
Neurophysiological studies undoubtedly have an immense significance for disclosing the material mechanisms of perception, and a great deal will have to be done in this direction. The question, however, is whether these studies by themselves are sufficient to understand perception as a special kind of knowledge, and whether the neurophysiological data can be interpreted in the theory of perception which we have briefly outlined here and which has been termed in philosophy representationism.
Let us note that in representationist terms, not all that exists in perception corresponds to the features of actually existing objects. Since the natural sciences, and in the first place physics, do not use the concepts of colour, taste, smell, etc., the corresponding properties of perception, the upholders of this view believe, should be regarded as emerging through the object influencing the subject rather than inherent in the actually existing objects (characterised by the concepts of extension, density, quantity, form, motion, etc.). Thus the theory of the so-called primary and secondary qualities is formulated, a theory that was presented in clear form by Locke and still has some supporters. The “primary” qualities of our perceptions (perception of spatial relations between objects, their size, etc.) reproduce more or less precisely the real properties of the objects themselves. As for the “secondary” qualities, they do not reproduce the properties of objects existing outside us, although they have objective causes. The “secondary” qualities, though not fully subjective and illusory, are thus more subjective than the “primary” ones.
Let us now consider the logic of the representationist conception. This will enable us to see its weak points.
(1) Let us begin with the fact that the very division into “primary” and “secondary” qualities is extremely shaky. It is true, of course, that the natural sciences do not use such concepts as colour, taste, smell, etc. (although these sciences might, of course, use concepts correlative with those of colour, taste, and smell – e.g., the concept of electromagnetic wave length). Neither does such a science as neurophysiology resort to the concepts of colour and taste, explaining the mechanism of perception through description of various spatial arrangements of the conductor nerves and brain centres and also studying the frequency of propagation of excitation along the nerve paths. The so-called secondary qualities do not appear as objects of neurophysiological analysis, for they cannot in principle be introduced into the system of physical interaction. But the question arises then, where do they emerge and in what “space” do they exist? We can no longer be satisfied with the answer that they emerge “in the process” of the object operating on the subject, for analysis of this process in terms of interaction between natural bodies does not make use of a concept pertaining to these “qualities.”
The assertion also appears unconvincing that the “primary” qualities, as distinct from the “secondary” ones, reproduce more or less precisely the properties of real objects. The subjective element in the perception of colour, in gustatory senses and others is rather prominent. But the element of subjectiveness is always present in the perception of spatial forms and relations of actual objects, too. In some cases this subjectiveness is so great that it necessarily produces various illusions of perception that have been studied in detail in modern psychology. In everyday life, however, it is correctly believed that perception of spatial forms of things is on the whole objective. Why then is subjectiveness ascribed to the perception of sound, colour, smell, etc.? It is correct that the conceptual picture of the world drawn by the natural sciences does not include colours, sounds, or smells. But it does not include many of the spatio-temporal interrelations fixed in material bodies which from the standpoint of pre-scientific “common sense” are necessary attributes of the objective, real world. If we should accept that only those characteristics of reality actually exist which are expressed in the concepts of the modern natural-scientific theories, we arrive at the conclusion that not only properties corresponding to “secondary” qualities are non-existent, but so are the objective correlates of the “primary” qualities, for that which we perceive as things more or less distinctly localised in space and time is, in terms of modern physics, merely a complex agglomeration of processes on the quantum mechanical level. In this case, our ordinary notions of space, time, and localisation of objects no longer work. The ordinary perception of external objects including both “secondary” and “primary” qualities will here appear as something that does not accord with their nature, as a consequence of the specific structure of our sense organs and of the fact that our body size is on the macroscale.
But doesn’t this assumption take us too far along the path of subjectivism?
Let us point out finally that the other assumption on which the division of perceived qualities into “primary” and “secondary” is based is open to criticism. We mean ascribing some fundamental affinity between the result of impact of the “primary” qualities of the object on the sense organs and the qualities themselves. As shown by neurophysiological research, the processes that take place in the nervous system at the moment of perception have, as a rule, no external similarity to the phenomena that are the objects of perception.
(2) It follows from the “causal theory” of perception that the subject is directly concerned with the “traces” of the object’s impact on the perceiving apparatus rather than with the object itself. The subject “transports outside,” as it were, the features or “qualities” of these “traces,” “projecting” them onto the real object and ascribing them to the object itself, although not all of them are actually inherent in the latter.
It is not clear, however, just why the subject necessarily ascribes to the object qualities that are not characteristic of it, and how it does so. The mechanism of projection is impossible to understand in terms of action of one physical system on another.
(3) Then there is this puzzle: how can the subject “read,” i.e., perceive the “imprints” or “traces” of the action of the object on his perceiving apparatus?
Indeed, according to the given conception, all perception is necessarily mediated by the sense organs and the nervous apparatus. What are the sense organs that can perceive the “imprints” given in the apparatus itself that realises the process of perception? Even if we assume that such special “sense organs” do exist, that is no solution of the problem, for in these “sense organs” there must be some new “imprints” which again have to be “read” by someone, etc. And who is that “someone” reading the imprints? The subject? But the basic premise of this conception is that the subject is a physical body, a natural material system, which cannot exist somewhere in its own nervous apparatus reading imprints in its own brain.
The only way out is to recognise that the process of perception of “imprints” in the perceiving system is fundamentally different from the perception of external objects and that the former process is realised directly, without sense organs or “reading” the corresponding traces. However, that would mean rejecting the view that the origin of sense perception as a special kind of knowledge can be fully and exhaustively interpreted in terms of action of one physical system upon another.
(4) Consistent adherence to this conception inevitably entails subjectivistic conclusions contradicting the materialist theory of reflection. Here is one of them. The “causal” theory of perception postulates that direct perception is characteristic of processes in the subject’s receiving apparatus and can be correlated with the real object in a very mediated manner. The actual processes during perception may be disclosed by studying the work of analysers of the brain and nerve structures. If we follow the logic of this conception, we shall have to accept that the physiologist studying the work of the brain does not, in actual fact, deal directly with that brain but only with his own, for any object is accessible to the scientist only through the “imprints” in his own brain, which “symbolise” external reality rather approximately, being similar to that reality only in some respects. Bertrand Russell, an adherent of the “causal” theory of perception, draws this conclusion, insisting that it is a mistake to assume “that a man can see matter. Not even the ablest physiologist can perform this feat. His percept when he looks at a brain is an event in his own mind, and has only a causal connection with the brain that he fancies he is seeing.”
Following the path of subjectivism, Russell, unlike Locke and other metaphysical materialists, includes the “causal theory” of perception within the framework of a subjective idealistic philosophical conception. That which was a concession to subjectivism in metaphysical materialists, becomes the nucleus of Russell’s epistemology.
(5) Let us finally point out an essential circumstance that is hard to explain, if one regards perception as simple causal action of one physical system on another. We refer to the fact that perception always assumes realisation of percepts and their inclusion (in the process of perception itself) in some category of objects, which is expressed in understanding the object perceived. Understanding means a certain activity of the subject, manifested, among other things, in different objective interpretations and perceptions of one and the same action of the object on the subject’s receptive apparatus. The objective interpretation of reality takes place in the framework of a certain system of objective “standards.” Perception thus has definite normative features. Generally speaking, it is those features of perception which have to do with its conscious and normative character that are least amenable to interpretation in terms of causal impact of one physical system upon another. The need to view perception as a special structure, a phenomenon of consciousness rather than a simple “imprint,” has come up in other cases, e.g., when we spoke of the problem of localising the sensual image, explaining the mechanism of “projection,” etc. Most supporters of the “causal” theory of perception recognise, in one way or another, that the chains of natural causation in the subject’s receptive apparatus result in the emergence of a specific phenomenon that cannot be directly understood and explained in the concepts of mechanics, physics, chemistry, and other natural sciences – the phenomenon of sensual image consciously realised by the subject (that is Russell’s position). This recognition, however, means in fact a rejection of the interpretation of the cognitive relation as merely a special type of connection between two physical systems.
Let us stress that critique of the “causal” conception of perception does not at all mean rejecting the idea that the subject is in some respects indeed a complex natural system, that the object does indeed act on the sense organs of the cognizing subject, and that cognition is in general impossible without this action.
Then again, it is impossible to ignore the enormous mass of material accumulated by neurophysiology. The task lies, apparently, in a philosophical-theoretical interpretation of that material.
Some modern adherents of the interpretation of the cognitive relation as a special type of interaction between two natural systems believe that the defects of epistemological conceptions criticised in the previous section are not determined by cognition being regarded as a purely natural process but by a one-sided view of the subject-object interaction: the action of the object on the subject is studied but the reverse action of the subject on the object is not. In this connection it is believed that proper attention to the subject’s own activity in the analysis of cognition, in particular to his external material activity, would allow to overcome the fundamental shortcomings of the epistemological conception of metaphysical materialism: the normative nature of cognition, for instance, will then be explained. It should be stressed that the activity the necessity of studying which is asserted is in this case understood in the spirit of natural philosophy, as a purely natural characteristic of a specific body – the cognizing subject. This approach to the analysis of activity is quite acceptable to the adherents of this view. In fact, it does not in principle go beyond the interpretation of the cognitive relation as a natural interaction of a special type. Although its adherents analyse some cognitive problems with greater discrimination and precision than Locke and the other theoreticians who stressed the one-sided action of the object on the subject, it is still in principle impossible to construct an adequate epistemological conception in the framework of a modernised naturalist model of cognition. The theoreticians who interpret the subject’s cognitive activity in a naturalistic fashion, either stick to the positions of metaphysical materialism or accept the standpoint of subjective idealism, or even assimilate both of these positions.
An illustration of this conception of the cognitive relation is the system of the so-called genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget, one of the most prominent Western psychologists. “Genetic epistemology,” which is extremely influential abroad, has arisen as an attempt to philosophically interpret the extensive results of experimental and theoretical psychological studies carried out by Piaget and his collaborators during several decades. In analysing “genetic epistemology,” we shall endeavour to separate the actual facts discovered by Piaget (we shall return to these facts, characterising important aspects of the process of cognition, in our positive inquiry into the problem) from his theoretical interpretation, which is largely untenable in its philosophical aspects.
Two features distinguish the approach of the Swiss psychologist. First, he recognises the subject’s active role at all levels of the cognitive process, beginning with perception and ending with complex intellectual structures. This activeness of the subject is expressed in the transformation of the object, in the fact that the latter can only affect the subject in the course of his activity, which varies in character at different intellectual levels. Second, the cognitive relation is interpreted in the framework of the system-structural approach: various cognitive formations are viewed as integral structures; and the subject-object relation itself is regarded as a special type of system in which subject and object are mutually “balanced.”
The main ideas of the operational conception of intelligence (as Piaget refers to his psychological theory) are as follows:
1. Intelligence is defined in the context of behaviour, that is, of specific exchange (interaction) between the external world and the subject.
“... Unlike physiological interactions, which are of a material nature and involve an internal change in the bodies which are present, the responses studied by psychology are of a functional nature and are achieved at greater and greater distances in space (perception, etc.) and in time (memory, etc.) besides following more and more complex paths (reversals, detours, etc.).” According to Piaget, intelligence is a definite form of the cognitive aspect of behaviour, whose functional purpose is the structuring of relations between environment and the organism.
2. Intelligence, just as all the other biological processes and functions, is of adaptive nature, in Piaget’s view. Adaptation is in this case understood as equilibrium between assimilation (of the given material by the existing systems of behaviour) and accommodation (of these schemes to a definite situation). Adaptation may obviously vary quite extensively in its nature. It may be material, with equilibrium attained by “interpenetration between some part of the living body and some sector of the external environment.” or functional, which is not reducible to such material interpenetration (or exchange). A most important element in this understanding of the nature of intelligence is the assertion of the specifically functional nature of adaptation in the intellectual sphere.
3. Cognition realised by intelligence is not, according to Piaget, a static copy of reality. To cognize an object means to act on it, to reproduce it dynamically, and that is why the essence of intelligence lies in its active nature. Psychical and, consequently intellectual life begins “with functional interaction, that is to say from the point at which assimilation no longer alters assimilated objects in a physico-chemical manner but simply incorporates them in its own forms of activity (and when accommodation only modifies this activity).”
4. Intellectual activity is derivative from the subject’s material actions; its elements, or operations, are interiorised actions which prove to be operations in the proper sense of the word only if they are mutually coordinated, forming reversible, stable, and at the same time mobile integral structures.
5. These integral structures may differ essentially both in the degree of their reversibility and the nature of mobility, and in their being related to a given sphere of objects. Moreover, other cognitive functions (for example, perception) are also characterised by structural organisation. The problems of genetic affinity between cognitive functions (and behaviour as a whole) and the specificity of intelligence are solved by Piaget in the following manner. Intelligence “is an extension and a perfection of all adaptive processes. Organic adaptation, in fact, only ensures an immediate and consequently limited equilibrium between the individual and the present environment. Elementary cognitive functions, such as perception, habit and memory, extend it in the direction of present space (perceptual contact with distant objects) and of short-range reconstructions and anticipations. Only intelligence ... tends towards an all-embracing equilibrium by aiming at the assimilation of the whole of reality and the accommodation to it of action, which it thereby frees from its dependence on the initial hic and nunc.” Hence the principle of genetic deduction of the intellectual operations, the reverse side of this principle being the impossibility of indicating the strict boundaries of intelligence: the latter has to be defined only “by the direction towards which its development is turned.”
Thus intelligence is, according to Piaget, a special form of interaction between subject and object, specific activity which, being derivative from external object-related activity, emerges as the totality of interiorised operations mutually coordinated and forming reversible, stable, and at the same time mobile integral structures. Intelligence, says Piaget, may be defined “in terms of the progressive reversibility of the mobile structures” or, which is the same, as “the state of equilibrium towards which tend all the successive adaptations of a sensori-motor and cognitive nature, as well as all assimilatory and accommodatory interactions between the organism and the environment.
Piaget’s psychological and epistemological conception thus proves to be derivative from his interpretation of the interrelation between the organism and the environment, showing distinct biological orientation. We shall later see that Piaget endeavours to interpret the biological processes of assimilation and accommodation, in their turn, in terms of a physical and mechanistic theory of equilibrium.
The core of the genesis of intelligence is, according to Piaget, the formation of logical thinking, ability for which is neither innate nor preformed in the human mind. Logical thinking is the product of the subject’s growing activity in his relations with the external world.
Piaget singled out four basic stages in the development of logical reasoning: sensori-motor, pre-operational intelligence, concrete operations, and formal operations.
I. Intellectual acts at the stage of sensori-motor intelligence (up to the age of two) are based on coordination of movements and perceptions and do not involve any notions. Although sensori-motor intelligence is not yet logical, it “functionally” prepares logical reasoning proper.
II. Pre-operational intelligence (between two and seven years) is characterised by well-formed speech, notions, interiorisation of action in thought (action is replaced by some sign: word, image, or symbol).
At the stage of pre-operational intelligence, the child is not yet capable of applying an earlier acquired scheme of action with constant objects either to remote objects or to definite sets and quantities. The child does not yet have reversible operations and the concepts of retaining applicable to actions at a level higher than sensori-motor actions.
III. At the stage of concrete operations (between eight and eleven), different types of intellectual activity that have appeared during the previous period finally reach a state of “mobile equilibrium,” that is, they become reversible. At the same time, the basic concepts of retention are formed, the child is capable of concrete logical operations. He can form both relations and classes out of concrete things. But the logical operations have not yet become generalised. At this stage children cannot construct correct speech independently of real action.
IV. At the formal operations stage (between 11-12 and 14-15) the genesis of intelligence is completed. The ability to reason hypothetically and deductively develops at this stage, and the system of operations of propositional logic is formed. The subject can equally well operate with both objects and propositions. The emergence of these systems of operations shows, in Piaget’s view, that intelligence has been formed.
Although the development of logical reasoning forms an important aspect of the genesis of intelligence, it does not fully exhaust this process. In the course and on the basis of formation of operational structures of varying degrees of complexity, the child gradually masters the reality surrounding him. “During the first seven years of life [write Piaget and Inhelder] the child gradually discovers the elementary principles of invariance pertaining to the object, quantity, number, space and time, which lend his picture of the world an objective structure.” The most important components in the interpretation of this process, as suggested by Piaget, are (1) dependence of the analysis of the reality as constructed by the child on his activity; (2) the child’s spiritual development as a growing system of invariants mastered by him; (3) development of logical reasoning as the basis for the child’s entire intellectual development.
Piaget’s psychological and logical conception was the concrete material on which the conception of “genetic epistemology” developed.
Piaget believes that the numerous attempts at constructing a scientific epistemology in the past have been fruitless, because they proceeded from a static standpoint.
Piaget’s “genetic epistemology” substantiates the existence of a “dialectical connection” between the subject and the object, the indivisibility of the subject S and the object O. It is, writes Piaget, from the interaction S ⇔ O that action, the source of cognition, follows. The starting point of this cognition is neither S nor O but the interconnection ⇔, characteristic of action. It is on the basis of this dialectical interaction that the object and its properties gradually come to light – through decentration, which frees cognition from external illusions. Starting from this interaction ⇔, the subject discovers and cognizes the object, organising actions in a consistent system constituting the operations of his intellect or reasoning.
The development of cognition, Piaget believes, leads to the subject’s knowledge of the object becoming increasingly more invariant relative to the changing conditions of experience and the subject’s position relative to the object. On this path the author of “genetic epistemology” arrives at the idea of applying the theory of invariants (in particular, of the mathematical theory of groups) to the study of the processes of cognition. Piaget presents in mathematical form the cognitive entities taking shape at various stages in the development of intelligence as different structures, namely, as algebraic groups (and groupings), order structures, and topological structures. From Piaget’s standpoint, the invariant of a transformation group in an intellectual structure is knowledge about the object itself, about its own properties, irrespective of any particular reference frame in which these properties are discovered. The reversibility of operations in the intellectual structures is directly linked with the presence of invariants in them.
In Piaget’s theory, invariance of knowledge about an object relative to some subjective “perspective” is ensured by the actual interaction of subject and object, connected with the subject’s action and quite unambiguously defined by the properties of the object itself which exists objectively and actually. In Piaget’s discussion of this problem, materialism as the basic philosophical premise of his conception stands out particularly clearly.
The appearance of stable and reversible operational structures does not, of course, mean, in Piaget’s view, that situations of instability cannot henceforth arise at all in the subject’s knowledge. Knowledge is always knowledge of an external object, whose properties are inexhaustible: it presents to the subject ever new aspects and poses ever new problems. When Piaget points out the growth in the stability of knowledge of the object in intellectual development, he has in mind, first of all, the formation of reversible structures of intellectual operations, that is, of logical instruments which permit the subject to solve those tasks which reality poses before him. Inasmuch as Piaget believes that the solution of tasks is based on well-formedness of operational structures permitting to solve classes of problems of the same type, the growth in the stability of intelligence structures also indicates a growth in the stability and invariance of the subject’s knowledge as a whole.
But it is a well-known fact that, however important the invariance criterion may be as an indicator of the objectiveness of knowledge, it is not the only or the main criterion, and that becomes quite clear at the highest stages of the development of cognition, particularly in the construction of scientific knowledge.
It is this variety of forms which the invariance criterion can assume, and its derivation from other, more fundamental criteria, that are not taken into account in Piaget’s works. He singles out mostly those aspects of the formation of invariant knowledge of the object which may be adequately described by the available mathematical apparatus and, in the first place, by group theory. The proposition concerning the role of reversibility of operations as a means of attaining invariant knowledge is also derived by Piaget from group theory. But if one takes into account the diversity of forms which invariance of knowledge assumes, one will have to admit that reversibility of cognitive operations is not apparently the kind of universal indicator of objectiveness of knowledge which Piaget believes it to be.
Attempts to solve the problem of objectiveness of knowledge with the help of the invariance concept are numerous in the foreign literature on epistemology and the methodology, of science. Thus Max Born, one of the prominent modern physicists, points out in his discourse on the nature of “physical reality” that the concept of invariant of a group of transformations is a key to the concept of reality not only in physics but also in any aspect of the world.
“Invariants are the concepts of which science speaks in the same way as ordinary language speaks of ‘things’, and which it provides with names as if they were ordinary things.” Most measurements in physics, Born believes do not pertain to objects themselves but to their projections on other objects. “The projection ... is defined in relation to a system of reference... There are in general many equivalent systems of reference. In every physical theory there is a rule which connects the projections of the same object on different systems of reference.”
However, the attempts to identify construction of objective knowledge with establishment of the object’s invariant characteristics run into serious philosophical difficulties. The apparatus used by the physicist during experiments function in this aspect as quite real physical bodies interacting with other bodies according to objective laws, so that the results of interaction, just as, generally speaking, the properties arising from the relation of one object to other objects, the so-called projections, must exist objectively and really. Besides, invariance is not an absolute characteristic of a given property, being established only in a definite system of relations, and that which is invariant in one system may be non-invariant in another, to say nothing of all possible systems. Thus, the theory of invariants cannot have that fundamental epistemological significance which Piaget and other researchers abroad ascribe to it.
Piaget’s “genetic epistemology” endeavours to link up the theory of invariants with the theory of equilibrium. Here the fundamental philosophical weakness of Piaget’s conceptions comes to light most clearly.
Piaget believes that the emergence of invariants in the structure of intelligence (and, consequently, the appearance of reversible operations) is directly connected with mutual balancing of operations and, as a result of this, with the subject-object equilibrium. The theory of equilibrium must therefore provide a key to understanding intellectual development. Equilibrium is interpreted by Piaget as the maximum magnitude of the subject’s activity compensating for certain external changes, rather than as balance of forces in the state of rest.
In building the model of subject-object equilibrium on the analogy of the equilibrium between a physical system and its environment, and later on the analogy of the equilibrium of the biological organism with the environment, Piaget cannot deduce from this model the specific properties of the kind of “equilibrium” between subject and object and is therefore compelled to introduce these properties into his system from the outside, in apparent discord with his own basic model.
In mechanics, a closed system is believed to be in equilibrium if the sum of all possible types of work within the system equals zero.
Using the term “equilibrium” in his theoretical arguments, Piaget at first understood it in the sense that is close to the above. The subject-object system (and by “object” he means, first of all, that part of the subject’s environment with which he directly interacts, practically and cognitively) may be regarded as being in equilibrium if the sum of all possible interactions between the subject and the object equals zero (that means that the subject can always perform an action reversing the first action thus regaining the original situation). The external equilibrium between the subject and the object is ensured by establishing an equilibrium within the operational structure: the existence in this structure of an operation that is the reverse of the basic one gives precisely this effect that the sum of all possible operations within the structure equals zero.
It soon turned out, however, that Piaget’s analogy between equilibrium in a mechanical system and equilibrium in the structure of intellectual operations is extremely imprecise. First, the mechanical principle deals with a closed system, that is, one that is isolated from the influence of the environment, whereas the whole purpose of the “balancing” of intellectual operations of which Piaget speaks is the attainment of stability of the knowledge about the object relative to the mutable experience. In other words, Piaget deals with an “open” rather than “closed” system. Second, it came to light that in physics itself system equilibrium is only rarely expressed by the above principle. In the more general cases of system equilibrium, considered, e.g., in thermodynamics, there is a minimum of potential energy in the system (which is conditioned by the attainment of the most probable state by the system). Mechanical equilibrium proves to be only a special case of the more general equilibrium state. In recent years, a number of physicists and mathematicians (I. Prigozhin and others) have generalised the concept of equilibrium to include “dynamic equilibrium.” It proved to be possible to apply the mathematical theory of dynamic equilibrium of a system to the study of “open systems,” i.e., systems exchanging matter and energy with the environment. Some biologists have made attempts to apply the theory of dynamic equilibrium to the study of living organisms as “open systems.”
Piaget speaks of “balancing” operations within a cognitive structure, believing this “balance” attainable due to complete reversibility of operations. Endeavouring to get rid of teleology in explaining the inner trend of the subject’s actions towards mutual balancing, Piaget aims at constructing his conception on the basis of the physical theory of equilibrium. As we know, the tendency of a closed physical system towards the most probable state is explained by the action of statistical laws, without any reference to hidden goals. However, equilibrium in physical systems is very often achieved by attaining some irreversible state rather than by increasing the reversibility of processes within the system.
Finding it impossible to deduce from the physical model of equilibrium cognitive “equilibrium” of subject and object, which is of fundamental importance for his psychological and epistemological conception, Piaget was compelled to stress more and more the specific character of psychical equilibrium.
Piaget believes it necessary to distinguish between “instrumentally possible” and “structurally possible” operations. The former operations are those which the subject himself regards at a given moment as possible, that is, as operations he might perform. Although from the standpoint of the subject himself “instrumentally possible” operations are not those actually performed by him, an outsider (e.g., the psychologist studying the given person) may regard them as real, for the subject’s contemplation of his possible actions is just as real a psychological process as an external activity. “Structurally possible” are those operations of the subject which he himself does not regard at the given moment as possible (or he may even be unaware of his ability to perform them) but which he is nevertheless capable of performing, for he has at his disposal an objectively formed operational structure including these operations. The basis of all operations of the subject is thus “structurally possible” operations, coinciding in fact with the operational structure itself. Piaget asserts that in the intellectual operational structure the equilibrium of actual and possible changes is expressed in a manner quite different from a physical system. While in the intellectual structure there exist “instrumentally possible” operations that are mediating links, as it were, between real and possible changes, in a physical system there can only be a sharp dichotomy between real and possible changes. So the analogy between intellectual and physical equilibrium cannot be taken very far.
Analysis of the actual “equilibrium” between the subject and the object in the process of cognition led Piaget to a recognition of such characteristics of this equilibrium which can in no way be deduced from the model of equilibrium of a physical system or a biological organism. Referring to “instrumentally” and “structurally” possible operations, Piaget is compelled to speak of consciousness, of contemplation by the subject of his possible actions and of other specifically psychical states as the necessary component of the subject-object equilibrium.
Recognising the insufficiency of the physical theory of equilibrium for understanding the subject-object equilibrium, Piaget demonstrated, in fact, the weakness of his own epistemological stand, although he failed to work out a conception that would adequately explain the facts which he analysed.
Characteristically, when Piaget had to define the concept of “reversibility” of an action (i.e., the concept of operation, for an operation is a reversible action), he could not restrict himself to pointing out the connection between reversibility and the possibility of performing an action in two opposite directions and had to indicate the importance of realisation of the fact that the action remains the same as it is performed in either of the directions. Naturally, the concept of reversibility cannot be defined in this way in physics.
Piaget admits that the reversibility of intellectual operations of which he speaks has nothing to do with the reversibility of actual physical processes. Thus, speaking of the formation of the concept of time, he remarks that reversibility of time does not mean for the subject that actual physical time can flow in the opposite direction (actual time is irreversible) but merely the fact that the subject can mentally proceed not only from the previous moment of time to the subsequent one but also from the subsequent to the preceding (i.e., he can not only perform the operation A → B but also the operation B → A), realising, however, that the actual sequence of moments does not change (i.e., A precedes B). “Constructing time ... is an excellent example of joint action of the reversible processes of the subject and the irreversible processes of the object,” remarks Piaget.
Thus Piaget fails to deduce in the framework of his conception the normative character of cognitive structures without resorting to the phenomena of consciousness, those phenomena whose study cannot be carried out by interpreting the subject-object interrelations in terms of mechanics, physics, and biology, and thus does not accord with the fundamental approach of “genetic epistemology.” It proves impossible to explain objectiveness of knowledge and other fundamental characteristics of cognition by the theory of “balancing” the subject and the object interpreted as bodies given by nature.
According to Piaget, the subject’s activity serves as a means of reproducing the characteristics of the real object in the system of knowledge; in the view of other adherents of the naturalistic model of cognition, who focus on the subject’s active character, it is in general impossible to regard the existence of a real object of cognition as independent of the subject’s activity. Cognition is in this case no longer treated as reflection but merely as an ensemble of the subject’s individual external actions or operations. Adherents of these conceptions formulate a number of naturalistic, metaphysical-materialistic premises as their starting point (both the subject and the object being included in the structure of natural reality, and the subject’s actions or operations being interpreted as physical, or material), ending with constructing systems of subjective-idealistic epistemology.
Here belongs the epistemological and methodological conception of operationalism that was rather influential until recently among Western philosophers and natural scientists. Operationalism takes into account a very important characteristic of the cognitive process, namely the fact that in this process man introduces certain artificially created objects between himself and the cognized object: devices, measuring instruments, etc. Let us note that this fact is not duly appreciated in Piaget’s theory. However, the objects or “mediators” used in cognition are regarded in operationalism as fundamentally the same as the rest of the natural bodies. That these objects are included in a system of socio-cultural ties, is of no great epistemological significance for this conception.
The main ideas of operationalism were formulated by P. W. Bridgman, a well-known American physicist.
Bridgman drew attention to the fact that the special theory of relativity not only changed essentially our views of the world but also necessitated a new approach to a number of logical and epistemological problems involved in the interpretation of the mathematical formalisms used in physics and in specifying the meaning of physical concepts. “It was a great shock to discover that classical concepts, accepted unquestioningly, were inadequate to meet the actual situation, and the shock of this discovery has resulted in a critical attitude toward our whole conceptual structure.”
In thinking about the logical meaning of the procedures applied by Einstein in defining the basic concepts of the special theory of relativity, Bridgman concluded that despite the generally held view that most concepts of classical physics characterise the properties of objects, of things, the actual meaning of physical concepts lies in an ensemble of experimental operations or, to be more precise, in an ensemble of measurement procedures. Bridgman reasons, for instance, that we evidently know what “length” is if we can determine the length of a concrete object. To do so, we have to perform certain physical operations. “The concept of length is therefore fixed when the operations by which length is measured are fixed: that is, the concept of length involves as much as and nothing more than the set of operations by which length is determined. In general, we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations: the concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations.” If the concept is “mental, as of mathematical continuity, the operations are mental operations.” Bridgman indicates here that “we must demand that the set of operations equivalent to any concept must be a unique set” (i.e., only one set of operations corresponds to each concept).
In this connection, Bridgman continues, it is easy to show that such concepts of classical physics as “absolute time” or “absolute simultaneity” are devoid of meaning, for there are no physical operations that could be used to ascribe absolute time predicate to some event.
If we take into account that the operations to which a concept is equivalent are actual physical operations, the conclusion is inevitable in operationalism that concepts can only be defined in the range of actual experiment, becoming meaningless in regions as yet untouched by experiment. Therefore, Bridgman believes, we cannot express any assertions about these domains. And if we do make these assertions, we must regard them as conventionalised extrapolations, of the looseness of which we must be fully conscious and the justification of which is in the experiment of the future.
Thus, before the emergence of the special theory of relativity, it was believed that any two events A and B possessed this property with regard to the time of their realisation, that A takes place either before B or after it or simultaneously with it. This assertion seemed to be a simple description of the behaviour of objects given in experience. But the experience itself which this assertion claimed to describe was very narrow. When the range of experience was broadened, and research became concerned with bodies moving at high velocities, the untenability of the concept of simultaneity used by classical physics was discovered.
Einstein showed, Bridgman writes, that the operations which permitted the statement of simultaneity of two events involved measurement by an observer, so that simultaneity is not an absolute property of the two events but one involving the relation of the two events to the observer, the subject, his frame of reference, the velocity of these events relative to the observer’s frame of reference.
Bridgman makes further specifications in his methodological conception using a detailed operational analysis of the concept of length as his proving ground.
He asks this question: by what operations do we measure the length of any concrete physical object? The measurement of the objects of ordinary experiment is effected by a procedure which is crudely described as follows. A rod is used as the measure of length; it is imposed on the object in such a way that one of the ends of the rod coincides with one of the ends of the object, then the position of the second end of the rod is marked on the object, after which the rod is moved along the line that is the continuation of its previous position in such a way that the first end of the rod coincides with the previous position of the second end. This procedure is repeated until the second end of the object is reached. The number of separate applications of the rod is called the length of the object in this case.
Bridgman points out that the operation described here, which appears so simple, is in actual fact very complex. It is necessary to satisfy a whole series of conditions to really measure the length of an object. Thus we must be certain that the temperature of the rod is normal, one at which the length of given objects is usually measured, otherwise we would have to introduce correctives in the results of our measurements to account for the effect of the temperature changes. If we measure the vertical length of an object, we have to account for the influence of the gravitation forces on the length of the measuring rod. Finally, we must be certain that the measuring rod is not a magnet and is not affected by electric forces. All of these conditions are usually taken into account by the physicist who makes measurements with some concrete aim in view.
However, Bridgman continues, in operational analysis we must go even further in determining the conditions of measurement and specify all the details relevant to the movement of the rod in measurement: e.g., the precise path of the rod in space, its velocity and acceleration. In practice, when objects of ordinary experience are measured, these conditions are neglected. And that is quite understandable, for in ordinary experiment variations of these conditions do not affect the end result.
But we must recognise, Bridgman asserts, that experiment is always subject to errors, and that extending the boundaries of experiment and increasing the precision of measurement may reveal that the conditions that now seem to leave the result of measurements unaffected actually seriously affect it. “In principle the operations by which length is measured should be uniquely specified. If we have more than one set of operations, we have more than one concept, and strictly there should be a separate name to correspond to each different set of operations “
If we want to measure the length of a moving object, the operations applied will be different. At first glance, it will appear enough to climb on the object and repeat the procedure that was used in measuring the length of the object at rest. In actual fact the situation is somewhat more complicated. A full specification of the operations employed assumes several additional conditions. In what way shall we overtake the object with the measuring rod in our hands? Shall we first overtake the moving object and then try to jump on it, or shall we await the moment when the object approaches us? If the object moves rather fast, one obviously cannot jump on it directly from an immovable support, and we shall have to use some special device, such as a moving automobile.
Since operations applied by Einstein for defining the concept of length, are different from the operations used for measuring length in ordinary experience, Einstein’s “length” does not mean the same as the “length” of ordinary experience. These are different concepts, although they do have some features in common: where the velocity of the moving body relative to the measuring system reaches zero, the operations of measuring the moving object coincide with those applied in measuring the length of the object at rest.
Bridgman’s epistemological thinking on the nature of surrounding reality is directly connected with the essence of operational analysis.
An analysis of the logical meaning of this concept allows Bridgman to conclude that the attribute of physical reality is ascribed to those concepts which maybe defined by different sets of physical operations independent of each other.
We bear in mind that the main idea of operationalism is that each set of operations essentially corresponds to one concept only. If two (or more) sets of operations independent of each other yield the same results, we may, from the operationalist standpoint, conditionally identify the differing concepts corresponding to different sets, regarding them as one concept to which the status of physical reality is ascribed. Such a concept appears as an invariant relative to different sets of operations or as an expression of some correlation between different sets of physical phenomena. At the same time we should not forget, Bridgman insists, that the identification of the results of different sets of measurements is, to a certain degree, conditional, being justified by the available measurements only; future experiments may reveal discrepancies in the results of measurements belonging to different sets, and in this case a single concept will have to be “split” into two or more, that may or may not have the status of physical realities.
We thus see that the basis of operationalism is emphasis on the uniqueness of the experimental procedures performed by the experimenter, the need for singling out all the physical operations in defining concepts. Continuing this line of reasoning, Bridgman quite logically infers that, strictly speaking, each operation is unique, being implemented by the given single individual at a given time and place. The operations must not be generalised, as there is no method to guarantee the future of such generalisation.
But if one accepts these theoretical premises, the conclusion is inevitable that not only non-operational but also operational definitions of concepts are in fact impossible. A. C. Benjamin, an American researcher in operationalism, remarks: “Another operation, however similar to the first, must be a different one since it will be distinguished at least by spatial or temporal location. Two measurements of the length of a given object, even if the results are the same, can be distinguished. Now if a concept is always to be defined by an operation, and each operation is a particular, the concept itself takes on the particularity of its mode of definition. Not only will there be a difference between the tapeline length of a field and the triangulation length (even if the measured values are the same), but there will be a difference in meaning between all individual tapeline lengths of the field (again, even though the measured values are the same).” But concepts defined in this way are devoid of any cognitive value at all, for they essentially cease to be concepts, which must, as is well known, capture something that different situations have in common. This taking one of the basic premises of operationalism to its logical end comes into a decisive contradiction with the statement of Bridgman himself that physical operations in terms of which definitions of concepts are given must be repeatable and always realisable. Moreover, Bridgman writes: “Operational definitions, in spite of their precision, are in application without significance unless the situations to which they are applied are sufficiently developed so that at least two methods are known of getting to the terminus.”
It might be assumed that this contradiction in the foundation of the conception could be eliminated by assuming that each concept is synonymous to a set of repeatable operations rather than to one single operation. It is easy to see, however, that introducing a set of operations does not eliminate the main logical difficulty. Any two operations are similar in some points and different in others. Unifying a series of operations in a single set (or a single class) synonymous to the meaning of some concept implies, in the first place singling out of some general feature or property inherent in all these operations and not definable by an operational mode (operational definitions thus necessarily assume the existence of some characteristics interpreted non-operationally). Then again, the existence of a criterion is assumed which indicates the degree to which the operations must be similar to form a single set (depending on the required degree of similarity, different sets of operations may be specified to which different operationally defined concepts will correspond). Inasmuch as operationalism is in principle incapable of indicating such a criterion, its basic methodological assertion that different concepts correspond to different sets of physical operations proves to be untenable. Indeed, why can we in one case include different operations in a single set, correlating with one and only one concept, while other occasions, different sets of operations (even if they are expressed in identical or similar results) are said to characterise different concepts? Then, if we sometimes refer, for practical convenience, different sets of operations to one concept, why can this reference be regarded merely as a temporal procedure, pragmatically convenient but methodologically unjustifiable?
A necessary methodological correlate of Bridgman’s position is subjective idealism.
The Logic of Modern Physics contains, along with subjectivist general philosophical assertions, some statements in the spirit of natural-scientific materialism. In Bridgman’s later works the subjective-idealist position following from operationalism is realised more clearly and implemented quite consistently. In his book The Nature of Physical Theory he defends undisguised solipsism: “It seems to me that as I have stated it, the solipsist position, if indeed this be the solipsist position, is a simple statement of what direct observation gives me, and we have got to adjust our thinking so that it will not seem repugnant.”
In one of his works Bridgman argues that there is no operation to prove that the universe arose more than five minutes ago, “for any of our methods of proof are things that we do now.”
But the most significant circumstance that has determined the rejection, becoming evident now, of operationalism as a methodology and an epistemology by the wide circles of scientists abroad is not so much the self-contradictory nature of operationalism as the wide gap between the operationalist recommendations and the actual course of the development of science, a gap that became obvious and clearly realised in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1930s it was sometimes stated that operationalism is something generally accepted in Physics, whereas at present the conviction is widespread that operationalism is very far from understanding the real problems of scientific methodology.
The fact is that scientists prefer to use the so-called open concepts in the actual practice of scientific cognition, i.e., concepts whose significance relative to an experimental situation is not fully defined (since it is impossible to fully exhaust all these situations beforehand). As for operational definitions, they characterise closed concepts, for they fix the meaning of concepts only for some definite conditions.
The gist of the matter is that the so-called open concepts, with which science mostly operates, function within the framework of systems of theoretical knowledge. Operations of measuring certain magnitudes have a meaning in these frameworks, characterised by definite premises, ontological assumptions, and modes of specifying a definite aspect of objective reality. In other words, the measurement operations, far from being capable of specifying the meaning of scientific concepts, do not, as a rule, exist in isolation. As for the fundamental question of the standards and norms to which production and evaluation of theoretical knowledge (and knowledge in general) is subordinated, it cannot in principle be solved in an operationalist framework, as has been said above.
Most participants at the 1954 symposium on the Present State of Operationalism came to the conclusion that “if the rule of operationalist caution is strictly and consistently applied, physics must reduce to a mere record of isolated data.”
The question naturally, arises, if operationalism as an epistemology and general methodology of science must be rejected, does that mean that the technique of operationalist analysis has absolutely no rational content?
We have noted already that, although most concepts of science cannot be defined in terms which fix the results of measurement (and it is in this sense that operational definitions are understood in strict operationalism), these definitions still have a certain significance. They are used when a general non-operational. definition indicating the specific properties and relations of the concept defined has not yet been worked out. “We may not be able to give a general answer to such questions as ‘What is length?’, ‘What is causality?’, ‘What is simultaneity?’, etc. But, as long as we can, in most concrete cases, determine length and simultaneity through measuring operations, as long as we can determine the position of the body at a time t2 from its position at t1 and the momentum lent to it, we can say that the words ‘length’, ‘simultaneity’, and ‘causality’ have quite a definite unambiguous meaning, “ writes D. P. Gorsky.
An “operational definition” is not a definition in the proper sense of the word but a formulation of the empirical conditions of application of a theoretical concept, one and the same theoretical concept amenable to several empirical interpretations through different “operational definitions.”
Evaluating the significance of operationalism for the methodology of science in general, we conclude that Bridgman’s emphasis (following Einstein) on linking up theoretical constructs with experimental operations was not without a foundation, although the nature of this link was given a fundamentally erroneous interpretation in operationalism.
“Bridgman’s operationalism,” [remarks V. S. Shvyrev], reflected in a distorted form the indubitable fact of the methodology of natural science that the establishment of the meaning of ... theoretical concepts ... implies fixing certain empirical dependences between experimentally reproduced situations and the consequences, also empirically fixed, of these operations.”
As we see, the significance of the technique of operational analysis is not very great. This technique may only be fruitfully used if the meaning of the measurement operations and the nature of their reference to some scientific concept are already given, that is to say, if there already exist certain systems of knowledge characterising the state of affairs in the objective world independent of the subject and his operations. Any elementary measurement operation already presupposes the singling out of the objective magnitude or parameter which is to be measured, as well as “incorporation” of the results obtained into the system of relations between the mathematical objects (the result of measurement being expressed in mathematical form). As for the norms of obtaining and evaluating the systems of the very knowledge correlated with objects, this question is insoluble from the positions of operationalism as an epistemological and methodological conception. In other words, one cannot arrive at an understanding of the nature of knowledge and the character of the cognitive relation within the framework of this conception.
We have endeavoured to show that the naturalistic interpretation of the cognitive relation between subject and object as a kind of interaction between two natural systems, leaves a number of fundamental epistemological problems unsolved, regardless of the share of activity ascribed to each of the poles of interaction. Here belong questions of the interpretation of the nature and character of the norms of acquiring and evaluating knowledge, and those of the place and role in the cognitive process of such a specific structure as consciousness.
Starting out from metaphysical materialism, the adherents of the naturalist model of cognition are compelled to make inevitable concessions to subjectivism, siding, in some cases, entirely with subjective idealism and giving up the materialist theory of reflection.
Let us once again note that revealing the untenability of the epistemological conceptions formulated by the supporters of the naturalist interpretation of cognition, in no way signifies ignoring the real facts that are given a false interpretation in these conceptions (some of them were discovered by the upholders of the conceptions criticised here).
Indeed, man as the cognizing subject has a body liable to the action of mechanical, physical, chemical, and biological laws. This and other factors have a definite bearing on the mechanisms of implementing cognition. The whole point is, however, that man’s characteristic as a subject acting and cognizing in a specifically human manner cannot be understood from the natural specific features of man’s body. It proves impossible to interpret the fundamental and most essential traits of the cognitive relation within the mode of presentation of the subject-object problem discussed in this chapter.
It is all evidently a question of philosophical and scientific theoretical interpretation of the facts described and of evaluation of their significance for epistemological research.