Structuralism and Dialectic


By Jean Piaget

. . . To the extent that one opts for structure and devaluates genesis, history, and function or even the very activity of the subject itself, one cannot but come into conflict with the central tenets of dialectical modes of thought. It is therefore not surprising, and it is extremely instructive, to find Lévi‑Strauss devoting almost the entire concluding chapter of La Pensée sauvage to a discussion of Sartre's Critique de la raison dialectique. An examination of this debate seems to us all the more in order because both of the antagonists appear to us to have forgotten the fundamental fact that in the domain of the sciences themselves structuralism has always been linked with a constructivism from which the epithet “dialectical” can hardly be withheld—the emphasis upon historical development, opposition between contraries, and Aufhebungen (dépassements) is surely just as characteristic of constructivism as of dialectic, and that the idea of wholeness figures centrally in structuralist as in dialectical modes of thought is obvious.

The principal components of dialectical thought as we find it in Sartre are constructivism and its corollary, historicism. We earlier touched on Lévi‑Strauss’s general critique of theories which assign a privileged status to history; Sartre is there singled out for special mention. The difficulties attaching to his view of the I and his notion of the We as no more than an I raised to the second power, hermetically sealed off from other We’s, are also pointed up. Though this last point is well taken, it should be mentioned that Sartre’s subjectivist difficulties are the remains of his earlier existentialist phase; it is because his dialectic has not been schooled in the sciences but is merely doctrinal that it has not succeeded in erasing these vestiges of existentialism, for the dialectic of scientific thought implies, precisely, a reciprocity between perspectives. Sartre’s constructivism we would defend, despite Levi‑Strauss’s objections, except that we would deny what Sartre affirms, namely, that constructivism is peculiarly philosophical and alien to science. Sartre's depiction of science is almost entirely derived from positivism and its “analytic” method. Now not only is positivism, a movement in philosophy, not the same as science (of which it gives a systematically distorted picture), but—as Meyerson often pointed out—even the most positivistic scientists do not act on the credo they expound in their prefaces; they do just about the opposite of what dogma requires as soon as they turn to the analysis and explanation of experience. It is one thing to accuse them of insufficient self-knowledge or epistemological sophistication, but quite another simply to assimilate their scientific work to positivism.

But this means that Lévi-Strauss’s conception of the connection between dialectical reason and scientific thought, though more adequate than Sartre’s, is also open to objection: it is alarmingly modest as to the requirements of science and obliges us to grant a much more important role to dialectical processes than Lévi-Strauss himself seems to want. Not that there is an inherent conflict between structuralism and dialectic; rather, Lévi-Strauss’s version has been relatively static and ahistorical, and this is what has led him to underdestimate the importance of dialectical processes.

What, for Lévi-Strauss, is dialectical reason? If we understand him aright, it is always “constitutive” [1] in the sense of being venturesome, building bridges and crossing them, whereas analytic reason separates because it wants not only to understand but to control. “Dialectical reason,” Lévi-Strauss tells us, is not . . . something other than analytic reason . . . it is something additional in analytic reason” [2]; it is analytic reason’s own effort to transcend itself. But are we forcing the words if we say this comes down to a complementarity according to which synthetic reason’s inventiveness and progressiveness make up for the lack of these in analytic reason while the job of verification remains reserved for the latter? The distinction is, of course, essential and, equally of course, there are not two reasons but two attitudes or two “methods” (in the Cartesian sense) which reason may adopt. Still, to describe the work of construction for which the dialectical attitude calls simply a matter of “throwing out bridges over the abyss of a human ignorance whose further shore is constantly receding” [3] is insufficient. It is often construction itself which begets the negations along with the affirmations, and the syntheses (dépassements) whereby they are rendered coherent as well.

This Hegelian or Kantian pattern is not a merely conceptual or abstract pattern such as would be of no interest to either the sciences or structuralism. It corresponds to a progression which is inevitable once thought turns away from false absolutes. In the realm of structure it matches a recurrent historical process described by G. Bachelard in one of his best books, La philosophie du non. Its principle is that, given a completed structure, one negates one of its seemingly essential or at least necessary attributes. Classical algebra, for example, was commutative, but since Hamilton we have a variety of noncommutative algebras; Euclidean geometry has by “negation” (of the parallel postulate) engendered the non-Euclidean geometries; two-valued logic with its principle of excluded middle has, through Brouwer’s denial of the unrestricted validity of this principle (in particular, its validity in reasoning about Cantorian sets), become supplemented by multivalued logics, and so on. In logic and mathematics, construction by negation has practically become a standard method; given a certain structure, one tries, by systematic negation of one after another attribute to construct its complementary structures, in order later to subsume the original together with its complements in a more complex total structure. Griss’s “negationless logic” goes so far as to “negate” negation. Furthermore, when what is in question is to determine whether it is system A which presupposes B or B which presupposes A (for example, whether ordinals or cardinals are prior, concepts or judgments, and so on) we can be quite sure that dialectical circles or interactions will always in the end replace linear orders of prior and posterior.

In physics and biology there is something analogous to what we called “construction by negation,” though here it derives from what Kant called “real opposition.” [4] Need we remind the reader of the oscillations back and forth between a corpuscular and a wave theory of light, or the reciprocities between electrical and magnetic processes of which we know since Maxwell? Here, as in the domain of abstract structures, the dialectical attitude seems essential to the full working out of structures; dialectic is both complementary to and inseparable from analytic, even formalizing, reason; so the “something more” which Lévi-Strauss grudgingly allows to it is not just the courage to “throw out bridges”: dialectic over and over again substitutes “spirals” for the linear or “tree” models with which we start, and these famous spirals or nonvicious circles are very much like the genetic circles or interactions characteristic of growth.

This brings us back to the problem of history and Althusser’s and Godelier’s attempts to subject Marx’s work, despite the essential role it assigns to historical development in its sociological interpretations, to structuralist analysis. That there is a structuralist strand in Marx, something just about halfway between what we called “global” and “analytic” structuralism, is obvious, since he distinguishes “real infrastructures” from “ideological superstructures” and describes the former in terms which, though remaining qualitative, are sufficiently precise to bring us close to directly observable relations. Althusser, who means to furnish Marxism with an epistemology, tries therefore, and with full justification, to differentiate the Marxist from the Hegelian dialectic and to reformulate the former in modern structuralist terms.

According to Althusser, [5] the “Hegelianism” of the young Marx is quite debatable; Marx took off rather from problems set by Kant and Fichte. Whether Althusser is right on this point we cannot judge. It is a corollary to two much more fundamental observations. The first is that for Marxism, in contrast to idealism, to think is to produce, thought being a kind of “theoretical practice” which is not so much the work of the individual subject as the outcome of interactions between the subject and his personal environment, into which social and historical factors enter as well; it is in this light that Althusser interprets Marx’s famous passage where “the totality of the real” as a Gedankenconcretum is said to be “in reality a product of thought and conception.” [6]

We also accept Althusser’s second observation, namely that dialectical contradiction in Marx bears no resemblance to the Hegelian, which is, in the final analysis, reducible to an identity of contraries, whereas for Marx dialectical contradiction is the result of “overdetermination” (surdétermination), that is, if we understand him right, a necessary consequence of the inseparability of interactions. Similarly, Althusser rightly points up the difference between the Hegelian and the Marxist notions of “totality.”

It is this notion of “overdetermination”—the sociological counterpart to certain forms of causality in physics—which prompts Althusser to insert the contradictions inherent in the relations of production or the contradictions between these and the forces of production, in short, all the apparatus of Marxist economics, into a transformational system whose structure and principles of formalization he tries to articulate. Althusser has been chided for his formalism, but this is the current and unfounded criticism of all serious structuralist theories. The chief objection urged against him is that—at least in the eyes of some critics—he has too low an estimate of things human; but if the values of the “person” (often regrettably confused with those of the ego) are taken to be less important than the constructive activities of the epistemic subject, the characterization of knowledge as production is in agreement with one of the best established traditions of classical Marxism.

Godelier, in a footnote to his article “Système, structure, et contradiction dans le Capital,” [7] indicates, with great lucidity, how much work remains to be done on the relations between historic structures and their transformations. Social structures are comparable to mathematical “categories” (in the sense explained [earlier]—sets of objects and their possible mutual “applications”). It is not at all difficult to determines which functions are compatible and which incompatible with a given social structure. The hard question is, given a systematic ensemble of such structures, how do the modalities of their mutual connections “induce a dominant function within one of the structures so connected”? Not until contemporary structural analysis has perfected its methods by studying historical and genetic transformations with it be able to furnish the answer. Though Godelier (whose rounding off of Althusser’s analysis of contradiction in Marx is quite remarkable) stresses the “priority of the study of structures to that of their genesis or evolution,” and notes that Marx followed this procedure himself in opening Das Kapital with a theory of value, he can nevertheless be said to approach the question from this perspective: Let us not forget that, even in the domain of psychogenesis, genesis is never anything but the transition from one structure to another, and while the second structure is explained in terms of this transition, the transition itself can only be understood in transformational terms if both of its termini are known. Godelier’s final conclusion is worth citing in full, because it summarizes not only our objections to Lévi-Strauss but also the leading ideas of this work as a whole.

Anthropology could no longer challenge history, nor history anthropology; the opposition between psychology and sociology, sociology and history, would become sterile. For the possibility of a “science” of man would, in the final analysis, depend upon the possibility of discovering the laws of the operation, evolution, and internal relations of social structures . . . the method of structural analysis will, in other words, have to be generalized so as to become capable of explaining the conditions of variation and evolution of structures and their functions. [8]

For a structuralism of this sort, the structure and function, genesis and history, individual subject and society, are—once the instruments of analysis have been refined—inseparable, the more so it perfects its analytic tools.


1  C. Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (London, 1966), p. 246.

2  Ibid.

3  Ibid.

4  See L. Apostel’s interesting chapter on logic and dialectic in Logique et conaissance scientifique, edited by Jean Piaget, 1967, where this Kantian notion of a contrast between real and logical opposition is discussed at length.

5  Althusser, Pour Marx (Paris: Maspero, 1965)—trans.

6  Althusser uses the passage as an epigraph, ibid., p. 126 (trans.)

7  Les Temps modernes (1966), p. 857, Note 55.

8  Ibid., p. 864.

SOURCE: Piaget, Jean. “Structuralism and Dialectic” (1968), in The Essential Piaget: An Interpretive Reference and Guide, edited by H. E. Gruber & J. J. Vonèche (New York: Basic Books, 1977), pp. 775-779.

From: Jean Piaget, Structuralism, Chaninah Maschler, editor and translator (New York: Basic Books, 1970). Originally published in French as Le Structuralisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968). Published in England by Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Note: Boldface added by R. Dumain. Footnotes have been converted to numbered endnotes for ease of reference.

See also The Essential Piaget, edited by Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Voneche. 100th Anniversary ed. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1995. xliv, 912 pp.

The Essential Piaget (1977)

Table of Contents

   Introduction 3
   5 Recent Malacological Draggings in the Lake of Geneva by Professor Emile Yung 1912 10
   6 Notes on the Biology of Deep-Water Limnaea 1914 13
   7 Has the Mendelian Species an Absolute Value? 1914 19
   8 The Mission of the Idea 1915 26
   9 Biology and War 1918 38
   10 Recherche 1918 42
   Introduction 53
   11 Psychoanalysis in Its Relations with Child Psychology 1920 55
   Introduction 63
   13 The Language and Thought of the Child 1923 65
   14 Judgment and Reasoning in the Child 1924 89
   15 The Child's Conception of Physical Causality 1927 118
   16 Moral Feelings and Judgments 1966 154
   17 Moral Judgment: Children Invent the Social Contract 1932 159
   18 The First Year of Life of the Child 1927 198
   19 The Origins of Intelligence in Children 1936 215
   20 The Construction of Reality in the Child 1937 250
   21 The Child's Conception of Number 1941 298
   22 Intellectual Operations and Their Development 1963 342
   23 The Early Growth of Logic in the Child: Classification and Seriation 1959 359
   24 The Preadolescent and the Propositional Operations 1966 394
   26 Logic and Psychology 1952 445
   Introduction 481
   27 The Semiotic or Symbolic Function 1966 483
   28 The Role of Imitation in the Development of Representational Thought 1962 508
   29 Response to Brian Sutton-Smith 1966 515
   Introductory Notes 518
   30 The Child's Conception of Movement and Speed 1946 520
   31 The Child's Conception of Time 1946 547
   32 The Child's Conception of Space 1948 576
   Introduction 645
   33 Mental Images 1963 652
   34 Memory and the Structure of Image-Memories 1966 685
   Introduction 691
   35 Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child 1935 and 1965 695
   36 Comments on Mathematical Education 1972 726
   Introduction 735
   37 The Myth of the Sensory Origin of Scientific Knowledge 1957 744
   38 The Multiplicity of Forms of Psychological Explanations 1963 746
   39 Structuralism: Introduction and Location of Problems 1968 767
   40 Structuralism and Dialectic 1968 775
   Introduction 783
   41 Conservation of Information and Anticipation 1967 789
   42 Phenocopy in Biology and the Psychological Development of Knowledge 1975 803
   43 The Stages of Intellectual Development in Childhood and Adolescence 1955 814
   44 Formal Thought from the Equilibrium Standpoint 1955 820
   45 Equilibration Processes in the Psychobiological Development of the Child 1958 832
   46 Problems of Equilibration 1975 838
   47 The Various Forms of Knowledge Seen as Differentiated Organs of the Regulation of Functional Exchanges with the External World 1967 842
   Bibliography 861
   Name Index 867
   Subject Index 869

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