Early Stops on My Quest for Mind

As an adolescent, I became interested in the field of psychology. My interests in psychological topics resembled those of most American adolescents—curiosity about my own personality, emotions, family relations, ambitions, and anxieties. And so it is not surprising that when I had the chance (as an undergraduate), I seized the opportunity to study with Erik Erikson, a famous psychoanalyst. As a corollary, my reading and writing in psychology were primarily in the psychoanalytic and dynamic psychological traditions. Indeed, I initially applied to graduate school to study clinical psychology, though in the end I chose not to pursue that profession.

And that is because, right after graduating from college, thanks to a chance summer job opportunity with a noted scholar named Jerome Bruner, I encountered a quite different area of psychology. Cognitive psychology was on the ascent—more respectable within the discipline of “psychological science,” and (most importantly) of greater interest to me. The cognitive area also explores the mind (that’s what psychology does!), but it zeroes in on the mind of thinking, reasoning, creating, problem solving, problem finding, and, more broadly, the use of language and other symbol systems. We might say that cognitive psychology is situated in the senior common room of the academy, while dynamic psychology inhabits the room with the couch. Before long, I had become a convert to the branch of psychology represented by Professor Bruner and his colleagues.

My first book for the general reader was The Quest for Mind: Piaget, Lévi-Strauss and the Structuralist Movement. In this book, published in 1973, I described the major methodologies and findings of two thinkers who could readily be called cognitivists: Jean Piaget, a biologist-turned-psychologist, the master of cognitive development in children and adolescents; and Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist turned systematic thinker, the master—in his memorable phrase—of “the savage mind.”

For a first book, The Quest for Mind was widely reviewed, well received, and gave me a modest reputation as a reliable synthesizer of the works of others. In the book, I was doing what one is trained to do in high school and the university—understanding and summarizing clearly the ideas of others, with only a bit of personal commentary. My scholarly contribution, if any, was to find intriguing similarities and differences between the ideas and findings of Piaget and Lévi-Strauss. (Only later did I stick my own scholarly neck further out and write about my own developing ideas—most conspicuously, the theory of multiple intelligences.)

In retrospect, I have become curious about why I chose to write about these two figures—Piaget and Lévi-Strauss—and why and how I chose to link them. I don’t know precisely what I thought in the early 1970s, but I attempt here to resurrect the intellectual milieu of the time.

Following my introduction to cognitive studies courtesy of Professor Bruner, I spent a year in England. I read widely. Two of the scholars who most impressed me were Piaget and Lévi-Strauss. Personal encounters also mattered. In 1965, Lévi-Strauss was invited to London to give the prestigious Huxley Lecture to the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. I attended and was impressed with his wide knowledge, his carefully crafted arguments, and his ability to interact in a sophisticated manner (and in excellent English) with his British peers—specifically the noted anthropologists Edmund Leach and Rodney Needham. And then, revealingly, at the start of my honeymoon with Judy Krieger, who was also a student of cognitive development, we elected to travel to Geneva and sit in on Piaget’s weekly seminar. We met “Le Patron,” as he was nicknamed, and exchanged pleasantries. Thereafter, on several occasions when Piaget came to the United States, I went to hear him speak.

And so, by the summer of 1966, I was already immersed in the worlds of Piaget and Lévi-Strauss, both through their writings and through personal observations. As far as I can recall, at that time their American readership did not overlap very much—experts in child development and education were reading and arguing about Piaget, scholars in sociology and anthropology were reading and debating with Lévi-Strauss.

I believe that I was attracted by two features. First of all, I was intrigued by the concrete details of Piaget’s clever experiments with children of different ages, and by Lévi-Strauss’s vivid accounts of his field work in South America as well as his keen analyses of exotic myths and enigmatic kinship relations. Scholars were trying to map out how these two intriguing populations (Western children and indigenous populations) thought about the worlds of objects and of persons.

Second, and importantly, I was impressed by the systematicity of their thinking. Both Piaget and Lévi-Strauss were trying to lay out the logical structures that gave rise to the words and the behaviors that they and other social scientists had observed. More specifically, when Piaget asked young persons to explain physical phenomena (like the conservation of mass in the face of various physical distortions) or moral dilemmas (like the equitable distribution of desirable objects), he claimed that specific logical structures were at work. He then expressed these structures in the language of logic—technically, group and grouping theories. And when Lévi-Strauss described the manner in which choices of mates were facilitated or prohibited in different cultures, or how themes (like power) and contrasts (like the raw and the cooked) were captured in myths, he too laid out the basic structures in algebraic form. In retrospect (after almost fifty years!), I would say I was too impressed with Piaget and Lévi-Strauss’s penchant for describing the logics that underlies thought and behavior of children, inhabitants of distant societies, and (of course, by implication) our own thought process. I was looking, so to speak, for “dry land” that undergirded seemingly messy human behaviors.

And then I made a leap, one that, as an American, I was perhaps more poised to make than a European student would have been. I saw both Piaget (Genevan) and Lévi-Strauss (Parisian) as rationalists, growing out of a lengthy French intellectual tradition that placed a premium on logic. That tradition, dating back at least to the time of René Descartes, conceived of the mind as a privileged territory, quite apart from more mundane physical or physiological material. Not that Piaget and Lévi-Strauss were dualists in any literal sense: they both fully subscribed to the biological and physical scientific views of the time. And yet, perhaps more so than those in an Anglo-American empiricist tradition, Piaget and Lévi-Strauss continued to believe that one could study the mind directly, by-passing more mundane or more materialist bases.

It’s a bit odd that I was attracted to this formalist way of thinking. I was not trained in mathematics or physics and in those days had but modest interest in the biological sciences. But I have never forgotten a casual remark that Bruner made to me during that fateful summer of 1965—he said, “Howard, you think like a physicist.” If there was any force to this comment—the kind of sentence that almost everyone else present would have immediately forgotten but that has haunted me for decades—it raised the possibility that I was looking for a more formal way of thinking about the rich qualitative phenomena that interested me.

Quite possibly Bruner also realized that I was looking for a firmer foundation of my earlier interests. As a student of an interdisciplinary field called “social relations,” I had initially been most attracted to the writings of my tutor Erikson and also those of the sociologist David Riesman. Neither of these thinkers had any attraction to formal analysis (indeed, Erikson had never gone to college, and Riesman had not earned a Ph.D.). Perhaps I found myself lacking a powerful response to criticisms levelled at the seemingly artistic approaches to scholarship assumed by these mentoring figures—criticisms on the part of my friends, my other teachers, or my superego.

Anyway, whatever the cognitive or affective motivators, I began to think about the relations between, as well as the differences across, these two towering intellects. I then decided to write an article comparing their contributions. To my pleasure, it was accepted and published in Social Research, an established social science journal. Almost on a whim, I sent the article to Piaget and Lévi-Strauss. To my delight and astonishment, both men responded quickly and personally—to me, a mere graduate student (though Piaget conferred a doctorate on me in his address “Cher Docteur Gardner”). Only in the last few years, in digging up their correspondence, did I realize that their typed letters had the same date on them—April 10, 1970. Those letters, proud possessions, are now hung side by side in my office. I hope that they signal to me and to my students the importance—indeed the irreplaceability—of substantive communication among scholars and between mentors and mentees.

Before long, this article and comments from colleagues stimulated me to write the aforementioned book. (I note that, in the aforementioned 1970 article, I penned the pregnant phrase, “A task for a book, without question, but one worth sketching at this juncture.”) I conducted memorable interviews with both Piaget and Lévi-Strauss. I’d like to think that those personal encounters conferred a pertinence and passion to the book that took it beyond their printed words.

I was fortunate to find a wonderful editor, Dan Okrent; a distinguished publisher, Alfred A. Knopf; and a remarkable copy editor, Mel Rosenthal. That publishing team helped me to produce a book that I still have positive feelings about.

Now, because of two recent developments, I have a somewhat different slant on this book.

Development 1: For a volume in her honor, I was asked by my friend and colleague Sherry Turkle to write about one of her books, and together we decided that I should write about her first book Psychoanalytic Politics. Sherry’s book was also a study of the French intellectual tradition—in her case, focusing on another intellectual luminary, Jacques Lacan, a revolutionary psychoanalyst who was far more controversial than either Piaget or Lévi-Strauss. While I make no claim to have probed Sherry’s own motivations, I see both of us as having stretched to master another intellectual culture, one quite alien from ours, as a means of stretching our own social scientific understanding.

Development 2: As part of our current large national study of higher education, I’ve become intrigued by those experiences that students (and other informants) consider to be transformational. More frequently than I could have ever have anticipated, students today nominate their time abroad—the proverbial junior year, though it can occur in any year of college, or in a gap year, or a summer internship, or, as in my own case, a postgraduate fellowship. In one sense, it’s disappointing that so many young persons describe as particularly transformative their time away from the home campus. (Why bother to have a well-appointed home campus? Does an airplane ticket suffice?) But perhaps one needs both the time on campus and the time away for such an effect to be felt.

Both Sherry Turkle and I had spent time abroad before we embarked on these particular studies. But I think in my case—and I would speculate in Sherry Turkle’s case as well—this was not just a cultural year abroad. It was an intellectual voyage abroad, immersed in another cultural tradition, that expanded our own understanding of the work in which we were interested—and, perhaps, in ways that we ourselves only dimly comprehend, affected what we did thereafter. Indeed, my decision—while I was still studying the texts of Piaget and Lévi-Strauss—to study neuroscience and spend 15 years working on a neurological ward reveals yet another effort to find some “hard ground” undergirding the human issues in which I was interested. But these speculations and subsequent events are stuff for another blog, at another time.

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