“The subject of this investigation — one of the most important but also one of the most difficult in child psychology — is as follows: What conceptions of the world does the child naturally form at the different stages of its development? There are two essential standpoints from which the problem must be studied. Firstly, what is the modality of child thought: in other words, what is the scheme of reality which prompts this thought? Does the child, in fact, believe, as we do, in a real world and does he distinguish the belief from the various fictions of play and of imagination?
To what extent does he distinguish the external world from an internal or subjective world and what limits does he draw between his self and objective reality? These are the questions which make up the first problem, the child’s notion of reality.
A second fundamental problem is bound up with that just stated; namely the significance of explanations put forward by the child. What use does he make of the notions of cause and of law? What is the nature of the causality he accepts?
Explanation as exercised by savages or in the sciences has been studied, as also the various forms of philosophical explanation. Is the form of explanation presented by the child of a new type?
These and like questions form the second problem, the child’s notion of causality. These two questions of what reality and causality mean to the child are the subject of this book and of its sequel. It is clear from the outset that these problems are distinct from those dealt with in La causalite physique chez I’ enfant, a previous work.
There the problem was an analysis of the form and functioning of child thought; here it is an analysis of its content. The two questions though closely related are in their nature distinguishable. The form and functioning of thought are manifested every time the child comes into contact with other children or with an adult and constitute a form of social behaviour, observable from without. The content, on the contrary, may or may not be apparent and varies with the child and the things of which it is speaking. It is a system of intimate beliefs, and it requires a special technique to bring them to the light of day. Above all it is a system of mental tendencies and predilections of which the child himself has never been consciously aware and of which he never speaks.
Hence it is not merely useful but essential, first to examine the methods to be employed in studying these beliefs. To judge of the logic of children it is often enough simply to talk with them or to observe them among themselves. To arrive at their beliefs requires a special method which, it must be confessed outright, is not only difficult and tedious, but demands also an outlook, the fruit of at least one or two full years’ training. Mental specialists, trained in clinical practice, will immediately appreciate the reason. In order to assess a child’s statement at its true worth the most minute precautions are necessary.
Some account of these precautions must now be given, since if the reader ignores them he is likely to falsify completely the meaning of the pages which follow and, moreover, to mismanage the experiments should he, as we hope, decide to check them by repeating them himself.” Jean Piaget, from the Introduction to the Problems and Methods of one of his first monographs on children, The Child’s Conception of the World