Andrew Chrucky, "Preface" to Ronald L. Terranella's The Piagetian Epistemology of William Wordsworth : A Reconsideration of the Poet's Genius (1998).
[George] Santayana [in Three Philosophical Poets, 1910] identified only three philosophical poets: the naturalist, Lucretius; the supernaturalist, Dante; and the romantic, Goethe. Professor Terranella would place William Wordsworth in this select company. Using the developmental epistemology of Jean Piaget as the background against which to locate the English poet, he traces Wordsworth's rejection of both empiricism and the pure a priori. This is why he believes all other attempts to attribute to Wordsworth any past epistemology have failed, particularly the various strains of empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism fails because it cannot account for a priori and imaginative constructs; rationalism (or idealism) fails because it is wedded to innate faculties and constructions. Piaget's new epistemology, on the other hand, is a position which holds that the schemata and categories of understanding are a symbiotic development of mind interacting with the world -- precisely Wordsworth's epistemology according to Terranella.
He presents a convincing case. In support of it, I should like to add a few epistemological considerations of my own.
According to Piaget, the logical positivists held that logical and mathematical reasoning is possible only with the possession of conventional language -- a seemingly plausible claim since logical and mathematical operations require the use of logical and mathematical operators (symbols). Thus logic requires the use of a copula, a negation, disjunction, conjunction, implication and quantifiers, while in mathematics we also require such operational symbols as addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. Prima facie it is difficult to understand what it would mean to say that logical and mathematical operations exist before or independently of language.
But if this is true, there is a second matter to consider. How is language -- or better -- how is the language of logic and mathematics acquired? One hopeful answer is offered by empiricism, by which I mean that all knowledge (including knowledge of language) is acquired through a passive reception of sensorial inputs. That is to say, all knowledge must be translatable into a language of sensorial inputs.
That empiricism, so understood, is implausible is readily apparent when we try to find sensory correlates of the various logical and mathematical operator words. What in the sensorial field, for example, corresponds to "not"? to "or"? to "+"? Since no such correspondences exist, our concept of empiricism must be modified to include behavior and actions. And since these will include mention of rules and goals to he achieved, how is this to be expressed "empirically"?
One answer to this dilemma is to say that the logical and mathematical operations are "innate" human endowments. But infants and pre-linguistic children do not seem to have these abilities (as Locke pointed out), and it is difficult to imagine how the presence of these abilities could even be tested. In view of this difficulty, the second variant on this hypothesis is to claim that these are not first-order abilities. That is to say, though infants are not born with such abilities, they are born with the ability to acquire such abilities. This would seem to be a non-controversial idea because of its generality. But once we ask the specific question of the conditions under which infants gain the second-order ability, at least three alternatives are possible. We can say that this second-order ability is gained with the learning of language (the position of the positivist); we can say that this second-order ability appears pre-linguistically but requires maturation; or we can say we must add to the concept of maturation the fact of empirical knowledge (i.e., some exposure to experience). In any case, no matter how we choose from among these alternatives, the second-order ability will be independent of experience -- and whatever is independent of experience in this way, yet is necessary for the existence of knowledge, must be called a priori. The a priori, in this sense, can be straightforwardly innate. But it need not be, and probably is not. If it is not, then the a priori arises either through maturation, learning or both.
For the sake of keeping to a clear terminology, let us distinguish further three types of a priori: the innate, the relative, and the absolute. Since Professor Terranella, following Piaget, has only the innate a priori in mind, let us introduce the term "category" (which indeed is used in philosophical literature) for the other two types of a priori. Then Piaget can be understood to be interested in the development of the categorial features of intelligence which he calls "schemata". These features are operational (dynamically structural, or functional). Looked at this way, a serious difficulty appears in the philosophic literature. Historically, the epistemological problem has not been formulated with Piaget's specificity, but broadly as a problem of accounting for knowledge. But from a Piagetian perspective this is to conflate the knowledge which we ascribe to animals and very young infants and children, and the knowledge which is distinctly human and makes use of logical and mathematical operations. Put otherwise, historically the epistemologist conflates pre-linguistic and linguistic stages of knowledge.
An especially interesting example is that of Kant because of the way he frames his question -- "How is the a priori synthetic knowledge possible?" His answers straddle both the pre-linguistic and linguistic stages. This is evidently so if there is a priori knowledge at both stages. So even if Kant is right about the a priori in a general way, he nevertheless does not face the more specific Piagetian problem of distinguishing the pre-linguistic and the linguistic a priori (categories, schemata), and giving an account of their connection.
Unlike Kant, Piaget (and Wordsworth before him) is quite interested in the stages leading to the development of logical and mathematical operations, though it needs to be said at once that these later stages constitute a categorial (absolute a priori) condition for human knowledge. Without these operations there would not and could not be full human understanding. So it is clear that Piaget is in agreement with the positivists in believing that these operations cannot take place independently of language. Where he diverges from them is in denying that language is a sufficient condition for these operations.
Many fascinating experiments prove this point. For example, one involves children who pour water from and to containers of different shapes and sizes. Pre-operational children, though possessing language, cannot appreciate the conservation of the volume of water. Obviously, some non-linguistic factor is involved for which the positivist cannot provide a full explanation.
Wordsworth's biological epistemology anticipates the Piagetian understanding. There is also a similarity of observation of children that is quite remarkable. For instance, the poetry, in describing the perspective of the child, is animistic and anthropomorphic in exactly the ways observed by Piaget and for much the same reasons. And Wordsworth correctly describes the various stages of intellectual and affective adaptation.
Of course, the importance of childhood for Wordsworth has elsewhere been appreciated -- especially by those who would understand the poet as the precursor of Freud ("The child is father of the man"). But this study pushes the case for his originality even further. It argues convincingly that while there are reasons enough for calling Wordsworth an Idealist, a mystic, and a panpsychist (and it is no wonder that Whitehead, a panpsychist, found his poetry so congenial), or even for calling him a Hartleyan empiricist or a proto-Freudian, in the final analysis it is the Piagetian hypothesis that provides the best fit for interpreting his genius.
York, Pennsylvania, March, 1998