International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 43 20th October 2002


I. 'Jean Piaget and Immanuel Kant: The Concept of the A Priori' by
   John Eberts

II. Letters from a Memphis School Teacher

III.  Philosophy for Children: Meeting in Birmingham



What is knowledge? This is a basic question man has asked in his attempt to understand his rational being. Immanuel Kant and Jean Piaget have both approached this question in a specific manner.

For Kant, knowledge is based upon the nature of the 'a priori'. This a priori resides only in the knowing subject, and subjectivity constitutes all that is valid in the object of knowledge. Kant's a priori is the form of universality and necessity belonging to these objects. Kant states that even if space and time are the a priori of sensibility, they underlie the construction of the mathematical science; thus, all a priori are intellectual.

Jean Piaget has a different concept of the a priori. He agrees with Kant that knowledge is not derived only from experience, but goes on to state that the a priori contains a dull concept. It is a structure of objects which appears and expresses itself outside us, and yet is a knowledge of these structures which are rooted in the person. "On the one hand, knowledge is never derived exclusively from sensation of perceptions but also from schemes of action or from operatory schemes of various levels (vertical Decalogues) [1], both irreducible to perception alone, on the other hand, perception itself does not consist in a mere recording of sensorial data but includes an active organization which is due to the influence on perception as such of this schematism of actions operations"[2]. In other words, Piaget feels that there must be a combination of the Physical experience, (with the object itself), and a Logico- Mathematical knowledge, which forms equilibrium, thus creating true knowledge.

The Physical experience is one in which the person acts upon the object itself. This can be seen when little children learn that a bottle has concrete form. For example, until the child learns that a bottle has an opening at only one end (by handling the bottle), if a bottle is placed in front of him upside down, the child will try and drink out of the wrong end.

Logico-Mathematical Knowledge is accomplished not by the Physical handling of objects, but with abstractions of knowledge based on action. This action is given characteristics (not already apprehended in the object, yet not taking any away that are already present). The characteristics are given to an object by the subject (being subjective in nature). An example of this is when a child learns how to put objects into an ordered system, giving these objects a subjective characteristic, like counting rocks and giving them numbers to be able to determine the amount present.

Piaget's dual position has a number of consequences; above all, we should no longer refer to the a priori as a strictly formal or even as universal and necessary. The a priori becomes grasped in experience and Logico- Mathematical knowledge. From this, it must be realized that the universal imposes these meanings and here is where the original necessity is found. The meaning's in the object, but the meaning surpasses any single inclination. Therefore, it must be the possibility of correspondence that determines the domain of the various a priori which we apprehend in the object. "As human action is that of an organism which is part of the Physical universe, we understand also why when they encounter each other there is harmony between the (concept of adaptation/ assimilation-accommodation)[3] characteristics of the object and the operations of the subject."[4]

Given these descriptions, the basic problem is as follows: Kant feels that form is fixed for all experience. That is to say, it is one and the same in each and every experience, however simple or however complex. From this, he derives his concept of knowledge as being an analysis of duration, objectivity, and self-conscience, all being one and the same.

To deal with this point in depth would be an endless task. Yet the failure of Kant's theory can be shown by Piaget with one fairly simple example. If knowledge (is) and contains all that Kant states it does, then if one of its parts is not present the whole of the A Priori is faulty.

This is true because the a priori is the originator of knowledge, and if knowledge is not present, then it must follow that the a priori does not exist. {I would be inclined to agree as I construe knowledge to be an internal reality associated with external elements}. Piaget gives substantiated proof to this position when he developed the concept of child realism.

Child Realism consists of a confusion of the Inner and Outer, or the subject and object, in which children get early age experience. Everything the child sees or feels is common to the world and is only external. He has no concept of subjectivity. For example: If you ask a young child with what he thinks, he will say, "With my mouth". Even when you tell him to close his mouth and think of something, when you ask him what he thought with, he'll say his mouth. This example has been demonstrated and proved and shows that a child doesn't process self-consciousness or awareness at an early age. Therefore, Kant's theory must be in error.

Piaget, with his dual theory, takes this aspect of the child's development into account, showing that the Physical and Logico-Mathematical knowledge develop in sequence (Physical -> Logico).

With this development, true knowledge of reality develops and the child becomes aware of both subject and object. Although there may be fault in the system, it is at least more logical than Kant's.

Piaget's interest was not in knowledge, per se, but in the process of coming to know: the acquisition of knowledge. I believe that he believed that Logico-Mathematical knowledge comes about only after the individual moves through the prelinguistic and concrete operational stages to the formal operational level. Equilibrium must be accomplished through all stages, and the individual's knowledge on knowing comes to pass when the congruency, if you will, of his thoughts, words, and actions meld with external reality. This is evident as such in the case of conservation of discrete objects, etc... There is a need to develop the bridge between Kant's concern with knowledge and Piaget's concern how we come to know. One focuses on the process and the other on the end result.

I believe the example of thinking with the mouth may relate to the vertical Decalogue of which Piaget speaks. The child comes to know something at a prelinguistic level of development and later comes to know that very same thing at a verbal level. Unfortunately, we tend to encourage verbalization before the child comes to know that of which he speaks. Yet the child's words use the adult lexicon and we allow ourselves to think the child is with his own thoughts when he is merely replying with our words! (This may be applicable to adults as well.)


1. Parenthesis is author's 2. Jean Piaget 'Psychology and Epistemology'. New York: The Viking Press 1973 pp. 86,87 3. Parenthesis is author's 4. Op. cit. p. 72

(c) John Eberts 2002




12 October. From Mary Seifert:

Could you please add me to your list of subscribers (and fans)?

I started a web search for educational philosophy hours ago. I simply got lost in your wonderful publication. It was a bit of a vacation for this inner-city, Memphis public school teacher (my kids are all from the projects, 8-9 years old) Thank you for this lovely intellectual experience.


Dear Mary,

Thank you for your generous support and enthusiasm. You'd be surprised how few people take the trouble to write to me. I have added your address to the list for the 'Philosophy Pathways' e-journal. If you ever find an educational philosophy that works with project kids, that would make an interesting Pathways article :)

All the best,



13 October. From Mary Seifert:

Your innocent response to me triggered this rambling diatribe. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to vent and to put my frustration into words. They are probably not concise words or even coherent thoughts but I am getting a step closer to identifying my frustration which should enable me to define my own philosophy and approach to public education. Wow! This has been very therapeutic for me. You see, you do much more good for people than you will ever know! Again, my thanks! Mary.



I came to teaching late. After working with computers professionally I returned to school and earned by teaching degrees in my 40s. Now at 50, I find teaching to be more a passion, a mission, than a career. I have taught in the poorest school, in the poorest district, in one of the poorest states (Tennessee) and in the notorious North Philadelphia area aptly named "The Badlands". I am certainly not exaggerating when I say we (inner city, public school teachers) are performing miracles every single day. Few people know the extreme need of our inner city children. Crack is the most incredible drug. It can make a mother forget she has children. I keep pinching myself because I must be having a nightmare, it just can't be possible that we allow our children to live in such misery. It is unbelievable, unimaginable that we have children living in the utterly abysmal conditions they are in and yet this is 2002 and yet I am in the United States of America! I will never understand how people can be aware of the projects and then turn a blind eye to the conditions that exist there. I don't know how we can claim to be moral and just when we have such conditions in our cities.

As far as pedagogy, I go against the grain of popular methodology and I absolutely do NOT teach to what the children know. I take my students to an alternative universe where there is no violence and where they can feel safe and accepted. My first task is to make sure the children are clothed, fed, and feel that school offers a viable alternative to the ghetto. I strive to make the children feel good about themselves as members of a safe and supportive learning community. Only when basic needs are met (and I am talking about raw survival-level) can we expect them to move up Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is only then that I can start to push.

Now this may sound heartless but I think this is what is happening. I make sure my children know that we don't rely on welfare in the classroom. Often they don't realize that grades are earned not given on a teacher's whim. We set lofty goals and work hard to achieve them. My students aren't rewarded with quick candy hits. Rather they work to earn things like bars of soap, bottles of shampoo, pencils and erasers until self-reliance and achievement becomes a habit. I work them away from instant gratification by giving them tokens which they need to hold onto until they have earned ten tokens. The tokens are traded for whatever thing the children desire. It might be candy but it is more often than not a bar of soap or a pencil. Wow! I realize now this sounds pretty cold but I started this when I observed the children's' disregard and disrespect for things that were "given" to them as welfare or public assistance. I have also learned welfare here does not cover many necessities. I encourage my students to work for the "luxuries" they want but don't have at home. . . things like light bulbs, toilet paper, pencils, paper, and toiletries. This came about when I visited a home where the children had to climb up on the kitchen table, unscrew the light bulb and carry it to the living room where it was plugged in My children seem to respond very positively to the idea that they work and are thus responsible for their behavior and for their work. They may have no one in their family who has ever held a job so getting to school on time, being held responsible for a certain amount of "work" each day is novel to them. They are, to me, proven problem solvers and I expect a lot from them. They have survived conditions that would cripple many adults.

When it comes right down to teaching I have to take these children further and faster than those designated as "gifted and talented". My students need to go from reading at a kindergarten or first grade level (sometimes even lower) all the way up to the third grade level by the end of the school year. It is then they must pass a standardized test in order to be promoted to the fourth grade. The decision to promote or retain is out of my hands so we can't be satisfied with one year's gain in one year's time which is generally no easy accomplishment. The remarkable thing is. . . they do it! I tell them they are the hardest working kids in Memphis (or Philadelphia).

Something else that seems different is that I keep no secrets from them. I try to demystify the process, explain the rules, perhaps level the playing field. Usually I am the first teacher to show them how grades are determined, what their tested levels are and what they are expected to master. I try to humanize the process. I tell the kids that this is not a welfare state and that they have an opportunity to make their own future. I am their teacher not their case worker, buddy, or mom. I have seen the kids chew up and spit out too many well-intentioned liberals who want to be the kids' friend. They have plenty of friends. They need a stable, loving adult in their lives. They do know I love them although I am regularly asked in one form or another. . . "If you love me, why don't you beat me?" Seems they have had plenty of beatings "for their own good"!

I do far too much direction instruction, cover too many areas from health and hygiene totable manners along with the academics, model too many appropriate behaviors,and expect far too much from the kids. Somehow in spite of me the children garner suspiciously high marks on state and federal tests, read books independently, and aren't referred to special education for intellectual or emotional support. These ghetto kids win too many contests and competitions that were traditionally won by suburban or middle class schools. They somehow move from being the behavior problem kids to the role-model kids. My former students continue to call my home and visit my classroom regularly. They know they will always be my kids.

I have not completed graduate coursework because I am so disturbed by the way research is conducted in education. I cannot understand the logic behind our failure to do research on our poorest children in the schools where 100% of the kids are deemed "at risk for failure" and living in poverty. We collect data and extrapolate the information and observations made in middle and upper class schools and impose our finding as if one size fits all. For example, the School of Education at Temple University (itself serving an inner-city, non-traditional student population)does not permit graduate students to do research in Title I (high poverty) schools because they consider those children to be "too exceptional, too abnormal" for any applicable conclusions to be developed or for the research to be "valid"! With more and more of our children living in poverty they are, at least in my mind, fast becoming (if they are not already) the norm.

I am turning to you, to your publications,to help me out of this quandary. You are at a distance, have no vested interest, and perhaps can be objective critics. From your program perhaps I can become more objective. Maybe I just need other adults to model clear thinking, to help me develop logic and look at the crisis of public education more dispassionately. Again you have my gratitude and my thanks for the service you provide, for enabling us to continue our own educations from a distance, and for making the materials accessible to all.

(c) Mary Seifert 2002




At the beginning of this month I attended a meeting in Birmingham convened by Steve Williams, Editor of 'Teaching Thinking' magazine, to share information on the non-exam teaching of philosophy in UK schools. I was invited as a representative of the Philosophical Society of England and International Society for Philosophers.

Also at the meeting were Roger Sutcliffe from the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), Karin Murris, representing the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PES) and Simon Bayly, Development Manager for the Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy (SFCP).

A representative of the Royal Institute of Philosophy (RIP) had also accepted the invitation to attend the meeting, but at the last minute was prevented from doing so by illness.

The aim of the meeting was to discuss "approaches and materials" and "whether a campaign for more philosophy to be done in schools, both formally and informally, would be appropriate."

In his letter of invitation, Steve Williams wrote: "There are reasons why now might be a good time to raise these issues. The most recent National Curriculum document goes further than any of its ancestors in highlighting the need for learners to be good thinkers. In the 'Values, aims and purposes' section, the 'Why?' of the National Curriculum, there are a couple of bold statements aimed at schools. School curricula should 'enable pupils to think critically and creatively, to solve problems and make a difference for the better'. They should also promote 'an enquiring mind and the capacity to think rationally.' Philosophy could contribute to these aims. Also, there are opportunities for informal philosophy classes in summer schools through initiatives like the 'Excellence in Cities' programme."

I found the meeting exciting and very productive. One of the key issues that we all agreed on was the difference between teaching 'thinking' or 'critical thinking' and awakening an interest in philosophy as such. The value of philosophy for the student goes beyond its immediate practical benefits, measured in terms of improved performance in other school subjects.

Roger Sutcliffe explained the ideas behind SAPERE. Trained by Matthew Lipman in the USA, founder of 'Philosophy for Children', Roger Sutcliffe launched SAPERE as a campaign to introduce philosophical enquiry to school students of all ages. SAPERE runs courses for school teachers, and organizes regular conferences and study weekends on Philosophy for Children.

Simon Bayly told the meeting how the SFCP originated in Germany in the 30's, inspired by the writings of Leonard Nelson. Persecuted by the Nazis, the SFCP found a permanent home in the UK. Their method, called 'Socratic Dialogue' is a rigourous approach to philosophy which can be practiced both by philosophers and those new to philosophy. No mention is allowed of names of philosophers or philosophical ideas. The aim is to allow the discussion to develop through its own dialectical momentum without the intrusion of external 'knowledge'.

Karin Murris, trained in both the Lipman and Nelson methods, said that the PES had originally been slow to recognize the importance of these ideas, but was now fast catching up. The journal of the PES consists largely in academic discussion of the philosophy of education. Yet in the last few years there has been a decline in the importance of this subject in teacher training certificates and degrees. This is something which the PES is now striving to rectify.

I told about the story of 'Pathways to Philosophy' from its beginnings, and how my views about teaching philosophy had evolved over the last seven years. My own excursion into philosophy in schools with the 'Possible World Machine' program has shown very promising results. Matthew Del Nevo's 'Continental Community of Inquiry', recently added to the Pathways site was a valuable new resource for school teachers in the UK and elsewhere.

We all agreed that university philosophy departments have on the whole been slow to recognize the importance of philosophy in schools. As someone with a foot in both camps, I explained the reason why contemporary academic philosophy appears so remote to those outside university departments, and how academic philosophers are now searching for ways to bridge the gap.

The big question remained, How to increase the awareness of philosophy amongst schools and school teachers? We discussed various ways that a campaign might be conducted. The consensus was that the only effective method was 'seduction'. The publicity should be angled towards stimulating an initial interest in philosophy amongst school teachers, rather than bombarding schools with facts and figures about how well school children and students who have taken philosophy courses 'perform'.

I went away from the meeting feeling that there was much work to do, but full of ideas and very optimistic about the prospects for the future.

(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2002


Web sites:

PES: http:---

RIP: http:---

SAPERE: http:---

SFCP: http:---


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020