Measuring an infant performing scientific observation. Source: Harvard University Archives

Measuring an infant performing scientific observation. Source: Harvard University Archives.

Project (2019-)

Child Development and its Histories

What are the parallels between conceptual development in children and knowledge formation in the sciences. How have ideas of such parallel transformations informed understandings of cognition and the methods of historians? This project reveals how knowledge about the history of sciences since antiquity informs practices in the psychological sciences. Conversely, this project uses recent psychological knowledge about the mechanisms of concept formation to fashion interpretive tools for historical study. These two examinations center on a set of problems, the answers to which have been jointly approached by historians of science and by psychologists.

What is the nature of knowledge? What are concepts? What is the difference between belief and knowledge? These psychological and philosophical questions have, in the last 60 years, come to be answered in new ways by the young field of developmental psychology. At the center of these ideas of how to know children minds are a set of related methods. The first method is that children should be understood as though they are scientists. The implication is that conceptual change in each individual child should be understood in the same way that large scale conceptional transformations have occurred in the sciences since antiquity. For this reason, psychologists have become deeply inspired by works in history and philosophy of science. They have, by combining historical study with experimental methods, traced how children’s concepts of living things is parallel to a range of ideas about the definition of life and about taxonomy offered by Aristotle through the Medieval and Early modern period, Enlightenment, and 19th-century sciences.  

The second psychological method involves identifying and explaining the sources and structures of children’s knowledge. Psychologists focus on the mechanisms children use to gain knowledge of their world.  They have asked: is knowledge innate? What is the nature of this knowledge? Is it facts, theories, conceptual frames, and/or discovery techniques such as logical processes or observational methods? If knowledge is not innate, does knowledge come from contact with the environment?  Is this environment physical, social, or perhaps linguistic? My project shows how developmental psychologists have answered these questions by picturing children as steering between innatist rationalism on the one hand and empiricist inductivism on the other.  By focusing on children’s perceptions of the physical world, the categories and concepts they acquire and learn, the ways that words attach to concepts and definitions, psychologists have come to argue that all human thought, knowledge, and experience is mediated through certain structured forms of social contact. In sum, developmentalists have naturalized the social construction of science.