Henri Wallon

The Origins of Thought in the Child

Written: 1947;
Source: "Les origines de la pensee chez l'enfant" in The World of Henri Wallon;
Translator: Michael Vale;
Publisher: Jason Aaronson 1984;
Transcription / Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Online Version: Wallon Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2001.


Early in life a child's thoughts lag behind the adult's, causing continual communication problems. One aspect of this lag is delayed reactivity. The child frequently responds not to the question at hand but to the preceding question giving his responses the appearance of nonsense.

One cause of this lag is discontinuity. The child is unable to concentrate on the same object for long periods of time for two reasons: first, his inability to sustain attention over an extended period due to the rapid fatigue of his mental processes and second, the swiftness and readiness with which his attention is caught by external occurrences, unexpected diversions, or the random flow of peripheral or internal impressions. This instability is in itself a manifestation of a lag, as it indicates an inability to submit, in other than a passive manner, to the diverse impulses that may arise. Another aspect of discontinuity is preservation. The uttered word, the mental image, or the idea tends to reappear, to persist in an ebb and flow. This tendency is all the more striking because the perseverating theme often seems completely random.

These two seemingly contradictory consequences of the child's mental lag may give rise to accusations of recalcitrance or deliberate inattention on the part of the child, whereas in actuality they stem from a real inability. Another common effect of this lag is the child's failure to evoke images that would seem to follow naturally from the circumstances or the terms of a conversation. Once again, the child's failure can easily give the impression of stubbornness or contrariness, and indeed it often becomes this, given the readiness with which "I can't" is transformed into "I won't" in children.

Actually, thought exists only through the structures it imposes on things. Initially these structures are very elementary. At the origin of thought we can note the existence only of paired elements. The elementary unit of thought is this binary structure, not the terms that constitute it. Duality precedes unity. The pair exists before the isolated lement. Any term that is identifiable by thought—that is, "thinkable"—requires a complementary term from which it may be differentiated and to which it may be contrasted. What is true, for example, of color discrimination, which according to Koffka is possible only through contrast, applies to intellectual notions as well. Without this initial relationship of the pair, the building of further relationships would be impossible.

The dependence of thought on prior behavior is quite marked in the child. Adult thought is able to disengage situations and problems from nonintellectual contingencies. The mental activity of a child, on the contrary, is usually explicable only within the framework of his total activity. Even intellectual situations retain a subjective element. While the superior development of the adult is marked by his ability to focus his primary, and even exclusive, attention on the object of his reflections, for the child an object generally remains subordinated to the totality of his current reactions. An object is not merely conditioned or altered by his desires or affective states (an often-noted occurrence); it is also subject to circumstances that may, for short or long periods, influence or even motivate his behavior.


The child's thought is not amorphous; it is not simple "digression." It has an elementary structure which has accompanied thought from the very outset. Otherwise, further progress would be inconceivable, for thought would be unable to pass beyond pure sensorimotor data, when in actuality what distinguishes thought is its ability to rearrange data.

Nevertheless, thought's first stage can be misconstrued. It can be mistaken for a mere succession, entailing simply an endless substitution of one term by another and therefore reflecting a total absence of organization. This is the negative aspect of the first observable outlines of the most rudimentary forms of ideation. Long before psychologists spoke of "digression,"—that is, simple and continuous movement from thought to thought in children— Heilbronner explained the "flight of ideas" observed in manics as the simple association of one idea with the next, so that each idea formed two distinct pairs, one with its predecessor and one with the idea following but had no overall unity of meaning. Thus, thought might be deflected in a different direction by each new term; it would have no direction of its own, and its course would be completely determined by any one of the associations that might be generated by the last uttered term. This description is obviously too schematic. In particular, it does not take into account affective impulses or interests that are left more or less intact even in the most advanced stages of intellectual dissociation. It is therefore false, for it purports to explain the sequential flow of ideas as merely successive associations. Such a description is no more than a static analysis of the succession after it has taken place. But even a distribution of pairs is more than the simple result of associations in which each term is linked mechanically to the one immediately preceding and the one directly following.

The pair is the most elementary structure, and without it, thought could not exist. It is a kind of intellectual molecule that encapsulates the act of thought in its simple and least differentiated form. The tautology A equals A, which adds nothing to our knowledge of an object, is nevertheless indispensable if we are to be aware of "A" as an object. In thought, the pair precedes the isolated object, whose very existence depends on the pair.

The operational field is distinct from the perceptual field. Even with objects simply situated in space, it is one thing to ascertain positions and another to establish them practically, even with a model directly at hand. Certain subjects are able to do the one but can no longer do the other; their perceptual field persists but falls short of that order necessary for the establishment of the operational field. There is something in the operational field that places it beyond purely empirical data. There is the potential that transcends the fact, which precedes it and consequently eludes the senses and is part of that which is not immediately perceptible. For example, the operational field of measurement is of this nature. The instrument of measurement, the middle term, is as material and immediate as are the two terms of the pair to be compared. But as soon as it becomes an instrument of comparison, it becomes itself part of the operational field and takes on characteristics that are more than its mere individual relations with this or that other object. It becomes the symbol of magnitude, which varies in degree according to the objects to be compared. It implies a possible alignment, an operational, potential alignment. It presupposes an order that can only be imagined ideally, in an intellectualized space. This instrument of measurement presupposes a certain constancy in magnitude itself, without which it could not measure its variations.

At the sensorimotor level, the step beyond the pair is the configuration; at the intellectual level, it is the sequence—that is, an ordered succession of either objects or events. In both cases the elementary structure is integrated into an order that enables it to pass to a new operational level. In concrete situations, the elementary reaction is integrated by means of this configuration forming capacity that represents the dynamic union of space and time, as yet not dissociated. In the case of objects to be compared or effects to be explained, integration is of perceptual appearances with an order employing symbols as its necessary instrument. As an order that remains permanently operational, integration is distinct from the empirical or experiential order, whatever the activities currently being carried out.


A first source of contradictions, actual or potential, lies in the various ways in which the child begins to communicate with his surroundings. The role played by direct contact with things is not nearly as extensive as it is with most animals. The child's social environment codetermines his existence, and it provides the first means of satisfying his needs. His practical helplessness is compensated for by his ability to express his desires. Thus, on the one hand, there is direct, personal experience; and on the other, there is language and with it, the social and historical traditions communicated through language. Initially, there is no agreement between these two types of experience, and thus attempts to discover points of agreement may seem to us contradictory or peculiar.

But neither in personal experience nor in social traditions is there an initial homogeneity or coherence. When personal experience becomes separated from practical situations, two types of thought emerge that seem to be in competition, though both stem from the same causes. One is a kind of perceptual realism that retains only those aspects or features of a given thing that make particularly vivid or striking impressions on the senses, a pure phenomenalism which reduces reality to an infinite mutability of diverse forms or objects. The other is a kind of confused image, in which the part played by impressions derived directly from things and the part originating in the subject—that is, in his affectivity as well as his personal activity—remain undifferentiated: the practical merges with the perceptual. Experience is no more than a succession of situations to which the subject reacts. His representation of this experience is the image of these global wholes, while specific features and details are merely the circumstances surrounding an act that have no distinct individuality of their own. Thus, in so called syncretic representation, the qualities of things are at every point fused with each other, whatever their differences and regardless of whether their associations are essential or accidental.

The opposition between phenomenalism and syncretism seems obvious; nevertheless, they alternate and coexist. Their principles are, in effect, similar: a syncretic image cannot emerge from its indescribable confusion except by reducing itself to one sole and unique aspect, which, being undistinguished and undistinguishable from the other aspects, creates the illusion of being whole Often, description consists of an enumeration of details that are seen as equivalent, whereas in actuality they comprise an extremely varied collection of items. But often, too, a single detail is retained for all the other items. And, finally, only a single detail may be noted and take shape in the perceptual field. The shortcoming is the same in both cases: in syncretism, the inability to perceive multiple features as such, and in phenomenahsm, the inability to counterpose to the pure succession of situations or appearances the constant or essential aspects of things. Thus, there can be two orientations, two contrary yet complementary forms of behavior corresponding, on the one hand, to an activity among things and, on the other, to contemplative expectancy.

The particular and sometimes incidental feature mistaken for the whole must inevitably lead the child into incongruities or contra-dictions. But as his ability to contrast and compare his representations with each other increases, he also finds increased opportunities to analyze them better, complete them, or correct them.

The child's propensity for pragmatic description gives rise to explanations frequently in the operational mode He imagines that things operate along the same lines as his own activity or activity he has observed: he limits their existence or origins to the practical activities in which he sees them participate—hence, his inability to go beyond the utilitarian origin of things, which he regards as ultimate, even for objects for which a natural origin would seem fitting.  In the operational mode one thus finds common actions confused with individual actions, and personal experiences intermingled with custom.

Tradition is the other source of a child's representations. Initially, tradition is transmitted to the child from the social environment by means of language, a phenomenon whose structure and elements are themselves rich in meanings. Through language he learns to fix the identity of beings and things, and at the same time to express his own attitudes toward them. This role, in fact, is so essential that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the contribution of raw experience and the influence of words and grammatical forms. Their mutual appropriation, however, may entail long delays, for they are two systems with observable disagreements between them.

The child's intense analytical efforts to understand both his own thoughts and the thoughts of others may terminate in the most fruitless of formalisms or in nonsense. The system of words and meanings consists of a wide variety of structures that may set their own course, sometimes even inopportunely. The most obvious example of this is when figurative turns of phrase are literally interpreted; the associations that unite figurative and literal terms or images are transferred to the things themselves. In addition, the child often mistakes as features of reality those elements of language which are in fact only constellations of sounds and meanings: morphological assimilations, oppositions, ambivalences, or semantic affinities—whose effects the child has not yet sufficiently mastered.

Along with the contradictions that may develop either among these images or between images and things are those resulting from the confrontation of the child's own experience with the folklore at his disposal—for example, the tales, beliefs, or explanations transmitted from adult to child or from child to child. Finally, there is a third form of tradition: instruction, the rational or scientific explanation of things into which a child does not hesitate to introduce images familiar to him in contexts that are beyond his understanding. The mechanisms he may work out in his imagination, ingenious as they sometimes are, introduce still other anomalous elements into his ideas, already of unusual origins.

Perhaps the most important factor in the contradictions among the child's ideas is his lack of a precise sense of his own contradictions. A certain systematization of ideas must be achieved before oppositions and incongruities between ideas become comprehensible. In the child's mind, however, ideas flow successively, each potentially attracting or influencing another, each capable of leaving a more or less fluctuating impression of continuity or identity but together lacking anything fixed that would allow them to be compared and contrasted without their mutual contamination. If the need for coherence makes itself felt (and this often occurs only under the pressure of objections), other ideas arise, not to resolve the contradiction but to reconcile the irreconcilable with the aid of a new flood of images.

The child's usual ignorance of the sources of these ideas adds to his inability to coordinate them into coherent arguments. He confuses those deriving from language with those generated by perception, and those stemming from tradition with those drawn from experience. He confuses conclusions arrived at logically with statements accepted on authority, and simple analogy with discursive argument. The fixed term that would allow him to arrange his ideas according to their sources is still lacking. 

Sometimes the child attributes the same idea alternately to his own invention and to the  assertions of his father, or he imagines himself to have just discovered it or always to have known it. Initially, he has only a totally subjective impression of surprise or attraction; but since he is unable to go beyond the event that occupies his attention to assign it to a place in a sequence, he loses sight of the origin of the object of his current representation once this impression fades. A similar cause prevents him from distinguishing between what comes from his own resources and what he has obtained from others. Once again the alternation of attribution depends on purely subjective whims, according to whether it seems more cogent to answer for the idea himself or to invoke the source of all authority—his father. These contradictory statements do not bother him, as he is equally incapable of distributing the origins of his conceptions among persons or among specific moments or periods in time. He is as incapable of  delimiting the object of his thoughts in time and space as he is of assigning to his thoughts a subjective order of existence.

For the child, the problem is not to choose among invariants, but to distinguish them and bring them into accord with his perceptions of reality. In contrast to the thought of an adult, a child's thought does not proceed over distinctly circumscribed pathways in stages that reciprocally control each other, relying on terms whose meanings are fixed. Although thought continuously modifies itself as it proceeds along the path of normal development, it does so not through neglect and unawareness of its previous stages or through total transformation on encountering each new object, but rather through progressive differentiation and identification.


The greatest novelty in the history of human behavior is that activity which is reflected in speech, and which consequently translates things into words. Thus human activity was able to move gradually toward consciousness. We are constantly amazed by the existence in animals of spatial and temporal connections between an act and its effect, which, nonetheless, do not warrant the inference of  representational thought. It is the miracle of instinct, we are accustomed to say. But the "miracle" of representational thought usually goes unnoticed. An observation apprehended in its global and isolated reality seems to us a miracle, but a phenomenon with which we are too familiar because it takes place within us, is no longer a miracle.

The translation of an object into an image or idea was acquired, in principle and practice, long before thought became capable of comprehending itself. The "how" was thenceforth merely a problem of philosophical speculation or correct technique. It was not by chance that Plato and Aristotle were able to initiate the era of a Reason appropriate to things, Reason par excellence. The canons of correct definition first became possible and necessary only at the conclusion of a period of groupings, confusions, and conflicts between the intentions of the word and the fate of things. This period was followed by another in which the problem was reduced to a mere acknowledgment that the world is reflected in thought, or vice versa, depending on which is given priority in prevailing philosophical speculation. But the possibility of a precise correspondence between the world and thought, on which the attempt at correct definition is postulated, is by no means a fact or an immediate certainty (Wallon 1942). More primitive civilizations demonstrate the role of rites in serving as a bond of continuity between the refractory object and an imagined order, the role of the word as a magical incantation rather than for description, or the role of the ritual as an instrument of communication with alien forces that must be propitiated. In short, they demonstrate the whole of an age-long effort that has driven man—aspiring to the exercise of a power over things beyond the power available to him through his sensorimotor capacities alone—to apply to things the tool of affective or practical mimicry, prayer or oral command, that has already united him with his fellow man and gradually brought him to imitation. And imitation, in turn, through the constant interplay of increasingly refined and more fitting intellectual and verbal techniques, has given rise to representational thought. But such a correspondence between the mental and the material world is much too finely tuned for the child not to also have to grope and feel his way to attain it.

The object is commonly regarded as a primitive datum of perception that is transmitted as such to cognition. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to assume an image of an object to explain the reactions it is able to elicit in animals, children, or even adults. It may serve as means or ends without yet being identified—that is to say, isolated from other phenomena as a distinct, permanent, individual, and specific reality. That kind of representation would, in fact, seem to be at variance with the conditions and unfolding of action. Directed toward the sensorimotor field, action absorbs for its own use what the environment places at its disposal. It subordinates the self-sufficient existence of things, retaining only what they contribute to the operation in progress.

Practical activity is more cognizant of situations than of objects. It moves among favorable or unfavorable circumstances alike, arranging them in configurations, then in accordance with its ends and capacities. The ingenuity demonstrated by an animal or child in the face of practical problems shows that such activity operates in a dynamic field in which nothing acquires existence except as a function of possible or propitious gestures. Even in the adult, this occurs more often than it would seem. Images of things, when they intervene, obstruct the motor unfolding of acts. There are even pathological cases in which the image is completely abolished, although the automatic ability to grasp or use a thing remains intact. Moreover, at the level of perception itself an object may no longer be comprehended as an object, even though it still retains that identity in each of its sensuous aspects. Although the subject may still be able to name the diverse impressions the object calls forth as he experiences them, the object itself is not recognized as such.

Thus the object does not consist of a simple aggregate of impressions. It superimposes on them a meaning of which they are only the mutually complementary cues; through this meaning the object is able to advance to the level of realities subsisting by and for themselves, with their properties, their identity, their names, and their durability. The object therefore transcends perception— which is only a bare occurrence, the mere encounter of object with subject. Perception provides the content of subjective experience with a new form of integration and joins experience with a mode of existence that enables the contents to become independent of experience. The immediate act in the presence of a thing—that is, perception at the sensorimotor level—is repeated at the intellectual level, where the object must take its identity from among the different aspects and effects attributable to it but which it also Possesses in common with other objects distinct and different from itself. After having given rise to its own perception, the object must flow become the concern of thought.

However elementary or immediate an affirmation of the sameness of an object might appear, it presupposes from the outset that the object is detached from awareness and confronts it with its own existence. But such an affirmation may also present an entire scale of different meanings. Empiricism saw as the first stage in object recognition the understanding that an object is indeed itself or, if present intermittently, the same object through time. But the cohesiveness that provides an object with a principle of constancy also implies belief in an enduring conformity between the thing and the recollection of it. Usually the child, like certain mentally ill people, does not bother to question this belief. He may doubt the identity of an object as itself or over time, but this doubt is implicit in the object's representation, not in reference to it. Instead of being critical, the child is credulous; and instead of irréalisme, he creates phantasmagorias.

A second level is the sameness of simple resemblance, which seems to go beyond the particular to the categorical. Empiricism would see in this process the advent of abstraction. But in the child the operation is not so clear-cut. He has a direct experience of objects that are practically interchangeable. He does not probe into differences beyond usefulness or his present interests. The equivalent is as immediate for the child as the identical. There are objects that are by nature nonparticular within the limits of their use; they necessarily tend toward the generic. But there are also objects that are general from the outset (for example, "Daddy," whom initially the small child sees in any and every man) and that must gradually be reduced to the particular. Unless practice permits no substitution, the object remains for a long time in an intermediate space between the general and the particular.

A third level of sameness is commonality, not of aspects or effects, but of existence and substance. This identity is also far from simple. It may reduce either the different or the distinct to sameness—for example, steam, rain, or a river to water; or a table, a canoe, or a cottage to wood. The ability to subsume the unlike under the similar now seems to have reached a much higher level. But actually, identity of substance has not acquired a systematic rigor in the child. He cannot explain the cycle traversed by water as it passes from the earth to the clouds by evaporation, or the transformation of trees into different objects by the felling of forests and the carving of wood. Often, he even confuses or reverses the order of terms; for example, he may say that trees are made of cabinet wood. However, no matter how vague it may be, the unity of substance is by no means unimportant in his thought. To think things is to attribute to them a certain unity. Despite the syncretic confusions still evident, the unity of substance, which grounds the world of objects in matter, tends to dissolve their subjective associations.

A child's method of identification and that of the adult are in one sense opposites. In the former, there is simple assimilation; in the latter, integration. The child makes a thing of an aspect, a model of the image, and a person of the effigy. If the sea is blue only in places, there is a difference in substance. Burning coal is white or red, depending on whether the child's attention is directed toward the ashes or the flame. The statue in the manger that he sees in church seems so clearly to him to be the little Jesus descended from heaven to bring him toys that to explain this movement in space he feels constrained to attribute wings to the statue; for the child, it is better to distort perception than acknowledge a distinction between the likeness and the person. Does the child really deceive himself? The question is of little import here. What he is unable to reconcile is the statue and the thing it represents, when the two exist in different places and are different in substance. The idolatrous may believe in a real presence, but it is only a presence, not total confusion. It is a participation that implies omnipresence. God is an idol because He may exist simultaneously in different places, in different forms, or in different substances. Thus, He has an existence that is no longer the restricted existence of information from the senses. The most superstitious fetishist assumes occult powers and thereby transcends confusion between perception and being. He operates on at least two levels, and all his practices are aimed at establishing relations between them. In contrast, the child operates on only one level, at which he juxtaposes and segregates data from every source: perceptual, pragmatic, or verbal. Clearly lacking the adult's ability to identify objects accurately, the child continually takes one for the other.

To describe or name an object, or to class it according to its characteristics and qualities among other objects, is to ascertain its nature, not to explain, or even to confirm, its existence. An object might vanish and never reappear, but its representation would remain and allow it to be compared with other objects, as, for example, in paleontology; the case would seem to be similar even for a purely imaginary object. To define is to provide ideation with its material and tools and to enlarge and refine means of understanding. But the real is not implied either in a representation or in its analyses or systems. Reality is contingent on relations which, without regard for similarities and differences, link fact to fact. An edifice of qualities is constructed on the foundations of perception, to bring together objects never before observed in association. But perception also entails a here and a now, which attest to the presence of the object and which, insofar as the fact of existence presupposes the means to exist, pose the problem of because.

The two orientations that proceed from the perceived—representation and relation—are not themselves unrelated. They may complement each other, or they may operate alternately in the processes of cognition. But there is also the danger of their becoming confused with, or isolated from, one another, especially at the outset. This is the usual outcome when differentiation is still inadequate. It can be observed in the history of cognition: the idea as the ground of being, the genus preceding the species, and the species preceding the individual; or in descriptions explaining the world as the result of miraculous creations. A similar ambiguity exists in the child: he readily takes what he imagines for what is, and a description or account serves him as an explanation. In this mixture of representation and reality are reflected not only the previously noted fluctuations in the contours of representation, but also the fluctuations in the contours of reality.

Relations concerning place are the first to extricate themselves from concrete experience. They do this by stages. Initially, at the perceptual-motor level, sensorial, postural, prehensive, and locomotive spaces are reduced to a single space, while this space simultaneously becomes independent of the gestures or objects through which it is manifested. In the child's explorations of the external world and of himself, he demonstrates the progressive stages of this adaptation, which grows increasingly more coherent, polyvalent, and encompassing. At the level of pure representation—that is, in the absence of the object itself—questions concerning place follow closely on questions of name. Distinctions of place therefore appear subordinate to the identification of objects by a suitable term. Indeed, if they have not been given a clear-cut individuality, how could objects be imagined other than where they have been perceived? The word is the sign that is indispensable for the reproduction of objects in thought. It testifies to the permanence attributed to the sum of impressions elicited by the presence of the same object. It fixes this presence and retains it at the disposal of intellectual activity. It attests at once to the validity of this presence for all like objects and affirms opposition to the unlike. It classifies as it qualifies. Relations of place thus presuppose a qualitative representation of things.

Each level of existence has its corresponding structures. This is true for thought as well as for life. Thought's function is to know; its object is the world. It can only use and develop its material and derive constructions and systems from it that belong to the realm of speculation. In this sense, idealism is right. But not to go further means to confine oneself to a construction detached from its foundations, its permanent conditions, and its consequences. Causal relations are questions experience must verify. When experience answers negatively, the best deductive system crumbles, and the question must be formulated in another way. Hence, causality must always be patterned after something that at first appears irrational.

The forms of causality have varied considerably. As they have penetrated more deeply into physical reality, the need for symbols and formulas of greater precision, subtlety, and abstraction has grown proportionally, in order to represent the measure these deeper aspects of reality. As experience, under the impact of advances in research, becomes more and more demanding, speculative imagination must continuously extend its limits, which may thus become accessible only to certain intelligences. But the child, in the beginning, is unable to trace the contours of even the most commonplace forms of causality because they are constructs of  thought already beyond the raw data of experience.


A striking contrast in the intellectual behavior of the child exists between his easy familiarization with the structures and mechanisms of things belonging directly to his sphere of activity, his inability to form coherent representations of things that have not been objects of an experience, whether completed or only immediate. Thus, things that exist immediately and totally for him possess a quality that goes beyond information from the senses: these are ultrathings, which may be constructed in conformity to, but distinct from, the data of reality. For the adult, too, certain things remain ultrathings—for example, questions of origin. Of course, the relevant question is not to determine whether a child can resolve these problems, but to note how he reacts to them. Another problem whose facts elude him is that of growth, life, and death. Certain ultrathings lose their "ultraquality" for the adult but retain it for the child. For example, for the astronomist armed with telescopes and calculations, stars are no longer ultrathings; for the physicist, farmer, or navigator, storms no longer have ultraquality. But the effort required in this sphere of the child's imagination is to some extent incommensurate with his inherent capacities. The absurdities or nonsense to which an adult's explanations often lead the child is testimony to this.

Origin is existence placed in time, its beginning in time. But time and existence remain commingled; it is possible to establish a relation between the two. Thus are explained the contradictions the child incessantly confronts: the conflict between duration that implies all existence and the succession that is supposed to explain it; between a first cause and the infinite antecedents implied in the idea of cause; between the identity proper to every imagined being and the differing states through which it has supposedly evolved. To integrate duration into succession and succession into duration, the child must be capable of extracting time from things and of constructing an order that can encompass all real or possible existence, because it is foreign to each particular existence. To explain the origin of what is, present things must be integrated into a sequence of conditions in which they can divest themselves of everything that contributes to their actual, sensuous individuality. The child can only repeat his image of things indefinitely in either a temporal or causal order, term after term, without tracing them back collectively to their common cause. Thus, he thinks to avoid the contradictions of human activity existing before light by moving successively from electric lighting to kerosene, to oil, to candles, until he finally arrives at a dead end, to which he is also led by the artificialism in his explanations of natural facts, without actually finding the first term.

To study a child's thought in its development is to compare it explicitly or implicitly with adult thought. This comparison leads to a recognition of the interplay of diverse factors that maintain thought in variable equilibrium. Adult thought is itself not by any means a fixed, immutable term with circumscribed limits, as certain definitions of reason would imply. Not only has thought changed with historical eras and civilizations; it is still undergoing changes. In noting the inadequacies, inconsistencies, and contradictions in a child's responses, we must acknowledge that thought is by no means immediately adequate to things, nor does it operate on a single level or offer a coherent structure. In particular, stigmata of infantilism may be brought to light by an analysis of infantile thought. These are confusions to which adult thought sometimes regresses and from which a child obviously has to extricate himself if he is to learn to think objectively. The norm is not an a priori given; it is the result, always provisional and sometimes marked by regressions, of a process in which realities, necessities, and diverse aspirations confront each other.

Differences in thought are to be noted from one epoch to another, among individuals, and according to age. Are the causes of the same nature in these different cases? If our ideas or knowledge were a simple sum augmented over time—more slowly in the case of successive generations, whose task is the discovery of truth, or more rapidly in the case of the individual, who benefits from the accumulated experiences of generations—the only differences would be of quantity or proportion. But from one civilization to another, systems and principles of thought that are often contrary confront each other. Although undoubtedly necessary stages in the elaboration of our intellectual tools, knowledge can only be accumulative; is through opposition of ideas that progress is achieved. Conflict wrests a new truth from an old one. The quest for truth is a perpetual repudiation of error. Each epoch has its truths, communicated through ideas and language, and illustrated and upheld by techniques of labor, ways of life, and the conditions of existence the social milieu imposes on its members. Thus, assailed from all sides by his intellectual, moral, and material surroundings, a child has no alternative but to adopt the corresponding system of thought. If he deviates from it, it is because this adoption is hindered by a different order of facts. The first opposition observed in a child's intellectual development is that between tasks imposed by his environment and his own mental capacities.

It is easy to point out the difficulty the child under age eight experiences in completely dissociating things from his personal experience of them. Of course, he has for a long time been aware that things do not vanish permanently along with his perceptions of ~ them; that even if they have disappeared, they can again be perceived, and that they consequently have an existence independent of the impressions that inform him of their presence. But generally speaking, he does not admit willingly that something might have existed prior to his own consciousness Thus, all existence appears to be part of his own Certainly, some things might exist of which he is not presently aware or of which he has up to now had no awareness But without the stage that his self offers to the world, the world could not exist He finds it hard to conceive of an existence prior to his own, even for those to whom he owes his existence—his father and mother He vacillates between the necessity of providing the newborn he once was with parents, a house, and so on and his powerlessness to dissolve the ties that bind things to his own sensibility Without the capacity to experience their presence, things would not exist for him; therefore, they do not exist in themselves He is as yet unable to dissociate subjective reality from objective reality, or to place himself among things at the same time as he feels himself conscious of all things These two perspectives are still fused, he acts as if he believed himself to impart existence to things inasmuch as he is there to experience them.

Thus the intellectual development of the child reveals the essential coordinates of mental evolution. The functions all have an initial point from which they will become differentiated through practice, in relation to the situations to which they provide access. But this initial point marks the instant at which the function is made possible by underlying structures. It is to the succession of these initial points that the study of the origins of thought in the child ultimately returns.