In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jean Piaget

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Bibliography
  • Reference Resources

Childhood Studies Jean Piaget
Leslie Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0085


Jean William Fritz Piaget was born 9 August 1896 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and died 16 September 1980 in Geneva, Switzerland. His achievement was a brilliant insight captured in his first book about the linkage between child development and theory of knowledge. This insight was the core of what soon became his épistémologie génétique, often referred to as genetic epistemology or, better, as developmental epistemology. As a theory of knowledge, its focus was on the origin or genesis of knowledge through its development from infancy to adolescence, along with its rational legitimation by the child as a knower. In consequence, it showed how to go beyond the “division of labor” rampant in 20th-century philosophy and psychology, through their recombination in a nonreductive way. The bare outlines of his career are soon told. In 1918, he gained his PhD in biology from his local university and published Recherche (search), with the insight dominating the rest of his work. Its English précis is in The Essential Piaget (Gruber and Vonèche 1995, cited under Piaget on Piaget). After postdoctoral attachments in Zürich, Paris, and Geneva, he was appointed to his first chair at his home university in 1925, moving four years later to a chair at the University of Geneva, where he remained for the rest of his life, along with appointments at other universities, including the Sorbonne in Paris. Piaget was a prolific author and editor, publishing some one hundred books and six hundred papers, many proving to be seminal texts. He was awarded more than thirty honorary degrees, with the first at Harvard in 1936. In 1969, he became the first European to receive the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association. He was a recipient of a dozen major awards, including the Erasmus Prize in 1972 and the Balzan Prize in 1979. Asked in 1970 how he saw the future of his work, his reply was “with optimism, we see new problems every day.”

In this article, citation order is chronological to reflect the order of publication date.


Currently, no definitive biography covers all aspects of Piaget’s life. The available biographies largely maintain an intellectual focus on his work. Ducret 1990 is in French but is the best single guide. Vidal 1994 provides an argument whose fine exegesis is essential reading, though admittedly his evaluation is personal. Perret-Clermont and Barrelet 2008, an edited collection, maintains a focus on Piaget’s work by reference to his home town. Smith 2009 provides a portrait that has brevity in its favor, while Ratcliff 2010 is a captivating image-based book.

  • Ducret, Jean-Jacques. Jean Piaget: Biographie et parcours intellectuel. Lausanne, Switzerland: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1990.

    This French-language guide to Piaget’s life and work is the best available biography. Its author was one of Piaget’s colleagues, with a comprehensive knowledge supported by his companion texts and website.

  • Vidal, Fernando. Piaget before Piaget. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

    Sustained analysis of the transformation of Piaget’s early work in taxonomic biology up to his first book, Recherche, with its deep implications for his epistemology and the research program that dominated his work.

  • Perret-Clermont, Anne-Nelly, and Jean-Marc Barrelet, eds. Jean Piaget and Neuchâtel: The Learner and the Scholar. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2008.

    Edited collection of sixteen chapters with their detailed documentation of the “Neuchâtel connection,” in line with its title. Originally published in French as Jean Piaget et Neuchâtel: L’apprenti et le savant (Paris: Éditions Payot, 1996).

  • Smith, Leslie. “Jean Piaget: From Boy to Man.” In The Cambridge Companion to Piaget. Edited by Ulrich Müller, Jeremy I. M. Carpendale, and Leslie Smith, 18–27. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521898584

    Short overview of the early life of a precocious talent, with an inventory of his later achievements.

  • Ratcliff, Marc J. Bonjour Monsieur Piaget. Paris: Somogy Éditions d’Art, 2010.

    Charming and instructive image-based guide to aspects of the life of “Mr. Piaget” at home and at work.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.