Dear Professor von Glasersfeld,
Happy Easter! I am a Master of Education student in Hong Kong, though belatedly at
the age of 50. I have been puzzling over some historical issues while reading and learning about the mainstream
educational theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner and others who criticized Piaget. What vexes me is that, 'how did
Piaget react to the criticisms?" We know that Piaget lived into his eighties while Vygotsky died in the Stalin
era, although his works were only translated into English in the 1960s. Did Piaget react? How come he did not modify
his theories of universal structure, cognition and etc.? Would it be for the simple reason that none of his rebuffs
were translated into English so few outside France and Switzerland (and Quebec) knew about them? What also vexes me
is that, "how come no one commented on the extent of the Stalinist influence, or even control, over Vygotsky,
that might have affect his work?"
S H H Chiu
ANSWER FROM ERNST VON GLASERSFELD
Dear Mr. Chiu,
Your questions are very good and I shall try to answer them in sequence.
1. According to Bruner, who I am sure is right about this, Vygotsky's 'Thought and
Language' was suppressed in 1936 and not published in Russian until 1956. Vygotsky knew only Piaget's first two
books (from the 1920s), which means that he could not have had an understanding of Piaget's constructivist theory.
Piaget received the English translation of 'Thought and Language' from M.I.T.Press in 1961 or 1962, and it was, I
believe, the only thing he read of Vygotsky. He wrote a 14 page comment explaining his relation to Vygotsky's ideas,
and this was published by M.I.T Press as an addition to the 2nd printing of 'Thought and Language'. In this comment,
he shows that V's interpretation of 'egocentrism' was much narrower that he had intended. He ended it by saying:
'Actions, whether individual or interpersonal, are in essence co-ordinated and organized by the operational
structures which are spontaneously constructed in the course of mental development.' This foreshadows the basic
insight that informed the papers that were later published as 'Sociological Studies' (not translated into English
until about two years ago). In plain language: what an observer categorizes as social learning and social
interaction presupposes the individuals' prior construction of 'others' and something that counts as 'society'. This
is something Vygotsky did not consider, for he took society as a given, which was in agreement with the dialectical
Had this not been compatible with Marx, I doubt that V's would have been published
even in 1956. What puzzles me is the question: How much did Vygotsky know about Aleksander Bogdanov, who had
published four dialogues on philosophy of science in 1909 - a beautiful piece of work in which the social component
is better integrated with subjective construction than in anything later I have seen (I published a German
translation of the dialogues in my 'Grenzen des Begreifens, Benteli Verlag, Bern, 1996).
2. That the mainstream educational literature is mostly critical of Piaget is - from
my no doubt biased point of view - due to the fact that very few people in education have read enough Piaget to
understand the constructivist epistemology that was his main concern. Piaget is a difficult author, partly because
statements about the basic concepts of his theory are scattered in many different volumes and he never produced a
concise, comprehensive summary of his ideas; and partly because these ideas are incompatible with the general
realist view. Consequently people read him and try to assimilate what they read to a more or less traditional view -
and then it is not surprising that they find him to be mistaken. I have worked for a very long time to come up with
a coherent interpretation that satisfies me - and that is all it was intended to do, for it would be against the
very principle of constructivism to claim that it is the only, let alone the "right" interpretation.
Ernst von Glasersfeld.