Navigation – Plan du site

Alfred Binet – Ernst Mach: Similarities, Differences and Influences

Hayo Siemsen
p. 351-403


Alfred Binet et Ernst Mach avaient initialement des approches empiriques différentes : l’un entant que psychologue, l’autre comme physicien. Leur interrogation les a, en fin de compte, menés à la même question : la relation psychophysique. Aussi leurs approches ont montré de grandes ressemblances dans beaucoup de secteurs. Cet article essayera d’évaluer leurs ressemblances mais aussi leurs différences à la lumière de certaines des lettres jusqu’ici non publiées de Binet à Mach lui demandant d’écrire un article pour l’Anneé Psychologique. Il montrera également comment les questions soulevées par cette rencontre entre Binet et Mach ont influencés les générations postérieures de pédagogues sous l’influence de Binet, comme Piaget et Bruner. Finalement, l’article soutiendra que ces questions sont toujours non résolues.

Haut de page

Texte intégral


  • 1  Binet worked for several years as assistant for Charcot at the Salpetriere and later wrote his dis (...)
  • 2  “[…] a slightly adventurous course in the area of metaphysics.” (Binet 1906).

1At the time of 1905/1906, Alfred Binet (1857-1911) gave his central journal l’Anneé Psychologique (founded in 1894) a new focus. For this he invited articles from a range of intellectual heavyweights of his time, such as Mach, Poincaré, Maxwell, etc. Binet thereby developed his scientific interests from physiology to psychology1 and ultimately towards the epistemology of science (the psychology of science). This was also the time he published l’Âme et le Corps (1905) as a conceptual experiment2 and his philosophical statement. Shortly afterwards, Binet would focus his activities completely on education (he had started to do so since 1901 with the development of his famous intelligence-scale). Therefore, this period of time seems to have been especially important for Binet’s intellectual development. As I will show for the examples of Piaget and Larguier des Bancels, it was equally a crucial development for Binet’s intellectual successors.

2Binet was especially interested in the opinion of Ernst Mach (on the relation of “Body and Mind” (l’Âme et le Corps). At the end of 1905, Binet wrote a letter to Mach, asking him, if he would write an article for his l’Anneé Psychologique. Mach had at that time already acquired a high status, not only in physics, but especially in physiology. He had for example first, but nearly coincidentally with Josef Breuer (see Swoboda 1973) found the function of the inner ear as the organ of motor perception (acceleration, deceleration and rotation) in space. In 1905 Mach had just published what many regard as his most philosophical and most mature book of “Knowledge and Error”.

  • 3  The German version was posthumously published in Mach (1923).

3According to Larguier des Bancels, the translator of the article Mach wrote for l’Anneé Psychologique 3 and a very good friend of Binet, Mach’s article was clearly “the most important article this year” (1906) and probably also the years around. The question, which I will try to resolve in this article, is if and how Binet’s genesis of ideas might have been directly or indirectly influenced by Mach. Where were their ideas similar, where they diverge? Did Binet develop his ideas into the direction of Mach’s point of view and did this have an influence on his intellectual successors?

4Mach’s intellectual influences are unfortunately often difficult to follow directly. His ideas seem to be acting more on the intuition than on the conscious reflection, especially for the topic in discussion. Therefore, even the people who state that they are sure to have been influenced by Mach, often cannot tell exactly how. Einstein described this effect once as “imbibing Mach with one’s mother’s milk”. Very often, people do not even state that they have been influenced by him, but use his ideas. This can be shown only indirectly, for example in a conceptual analysis.

5Binet for instance quoted Mach only once in his books (in l’Âme et le Corps) in a minor role. But in Binet’s letters, Mach plays quite a different role for him. This does not seem to be only an act of courtesy. Therefore, the evidence gathered in this article on direct and indirect relations might provide a better understanding of this relation, than it can be gained from only looking into the obvious sources. Unfortunately, this approach is more prone to errors of speculation, which will be limited by gathering a net of evidence from many small pieces from different sources.

  • 4  “Zeitschichten” as the philosopher of history Koselleck (2003) called them.

6The point of view I am taking for interpreting this net of evidence is the point of view of the Machian epistemology, especially for the concept analysis. As Mach wrote (1905), our concepts necessarily change with our world view. As concepts should be used consistently within a text, this focus is a necessity. Other authors can add other “layers of time”4.

7The article will first establish some common roots of ideas of Mach and Binet in Ribot and Stallo (although the latter has only ideas similar, but not prior to Mach). Then I will present a synopsis of the letters between first Binet and Mach and then those of Larguier des Bancels and Mach. On the basis of this, I will compare the genesis of central ideas between Binet and Mach, including conceptual comparisons with mainly Bergson, but also James and in the succession Larguier and a group around Münsterberg. Finally, I will compare Mach’s and Binet’s ideas on education for showing the basis of their intellectual legacy in a specific line of educationalists, such as Piaget, Bruner and Gardner.

The letters

  • 5  These were : l’Anneé Psychologique 1905 (uncut) ; Les altérations de la personnalité, 2nd ed. ; l’ (...)

8From the end of 1905 to mid 1906, Binet and Mach had an exchange of letters for an article Mach wrote for Binet’s annual journal l’Anneé Psychologique. As both Mach and Binet quoted each other very little in each other’s work, the letters provide a relatively detailed picture of their relationship. It thereby seems much closer than could be judged from other sources. Unfortunately, Mach’s letters were probably destroyed with most of the letters to Binet by the wife of Binet’s co-worker Simon after the death of both. Therefore, Mach’s part of the discussion has to be inferred from Binet’s letters, from the works of Binet to be found in Mach’s library5 and from further quotations from Binet, Mach and Larguier (see below).

  • 6  Mach had sent his “Erhaltung der Arbeit” to Bergson. Bergson replied on the 3rd of September 1909, (...)

9At the time of the discussion Mach was 67 and half-paralyzed by a stroke (in 1898). He could type only with one hand, which was a slow process. Binet was 48 (so nearly one generation younger) and had just published his book l’Âme et le Corps, which was designed to get him a different position at the Sorbonne. For this, he had to publish a philosophical book to be taken serious by the philosophers around Bergson. Maybe Binet knew that Bergson admired Mach and hoped that Mach’s opinion would help in forging a link between Mach’s psychophysiological approach and Bergson’s philosophy.6 Binet probably sensed that Mach’s approach had certain aspects, which were closer to him than to Bergson, in which case it might have strengthened his own position. In Binet’s own description from his letters, he sees Mach’s ideas as a careful epistemological basis onto which he could develop his “metaphysical speculations”. Mach’s point of arrival, that all is “sensual perception” Binet sees as his point of departure. Binet’s book plays a strangely indirect, but at the same time central part in his letters as if Binet was at the same time eager and afraid of Mach’s opinion.

10In the following, I will give a brief summary of the letters: In a first letter from the 6th of December 1905, Binet invites Mach to write an article for l’Anneé Psychologique. As a subject he suggests Mach’s “philosophical ideas about matter and the relations between physical and mental processes”. Finally he adds that he holds Mach and his “beautiful” works in high esteem. In the next letter from the 20th of December 1905, he thanks Mach for his positive answer and is very happy about the collaboration with “such a talent”. He would accept Mach’s article in German or in French and if necessary would find a translator for it. As subject, he would prefer a “synthetic summary” of Mach’s “philosophical ideas”, especially concerning “the body and the mind” as he has “just published an essay about this interesting question” (l’Âme et le Corps). The “definitive deadline” (sic) would be the 1st of February. This is a very tight deadline in view of Mach’s illness, but “our great Pasteur had the same illness as you and that for a long time did not keep him from continuing his beautiful work [sic].” Binet “honours” Mach’s participation and expresses the “true admiration and adoration”, which he feels towards him.

  • 7  It would be interesting to know, who these “colleagues at the Sorbonne” exactly comprised.
  • 8  This highlights an interesting difference between French and German (or Austrian/Czech) culture.

11In his letters, Binet becomes more and more informal, especially in his next one, which is the first he starts with “my dear colleague”. On the 28th of December 1905, Binet tells Mach that he has told (“annoncé”) his colleagues at the Sorbonne that he would publish Mach’s article and “this news was received very sympathetically and with a great satisfaction of all. It shows you, how far we all revere you.”7 Mach had obviously told Binet, that the deadline was impossible to keep. So Binet prolongs his formerly “definite” deadline to the first of April.8 Binet stresses the point that Mach is the first, for whom he makes such exceptions (sic). The next letter is from the 8th of March 1906, when Mach had sent the article (in German). Binet asks Mach to look for a potential translator. In his P.S., Binet wants to know, if he had remembered to send Mach his l’Âme et le Corps. Also he asks for English books from Mach, as his German is very poor.

  • 9  Larguier was Secrétaire of l’Année Psychologique, philosopher and a very close friend to Binet. Se (...)
  • 10  Among them was quite certainly the “Analysis of Sensations”.

12The next letter has no date. It must have been written before the 25th of March 1908 (probably much before, because the translation was ready on the 28th). At that day, Binet had sent a letter to Larguier des Bancels9, whom he in the mean time had found as a translator. In the letter, Binet asked Larguier to send the translation to Mach for proofreading. In a letter on the 27th, he additionally asks Larguier to “corrigez le vite, vite”. In his undated letter to Mach, Binet tells about Larguier as translator, is “very content” to count Mach among the collaborators of l’Année and hopes, that this collaboration will continue in the next year. The final correspondence is a postcard from the 13th of April 1906, in which Binet tells Mach that he has received Mach’s books.10 “I can see, with how much wisdom and care you have founded your system, that all known is sensual perception. If you look into my last book, you can see that your point of arrival is my point of departure for a slightly adventurous course in the area of metaphysics.”

13Mach writes in the 5th edition of the German version of the “Analysis of Sensations” in May 1906 as the last sentence of his foreword: “With gratification I have noticed that the conceptualisation of the relation of the physical and the psychological from Alfred Binet (L’âme et le Corps, Paris 1905) nearly coincides with the one presented here.”

  • 11  Because Mach has a very precise and at the same time often unusual use of concepts it is very diff (...)

14The second part of the story concerns the translator Larguier des Bancels and Mach. Larguier wrote to Mach concerning the translation. In his first letter from the 28th of March 1906, Larguier already sends Mach the translation for proofreading. Larguier knows Mach’s works and especially his “Analysis of Sensations”, which he uses as a basis for the translation. He wishes that he “did not betray” Mach too much. Because of the lack of fitting expressions in French, he relies rather on translating the general sense than the exact wordings.11 In his second letter from the 2nd of April 1906, he thanks Mach for the nice letter and is pleased that Mach is content with his translation. Mach’s participation will give the next edition a “very high value”. On the 31st of July 1906, he thanks Mach briefly for the new edition of the “Analysis of Sensations” (obviously the new one mentioning Binet in the foreword). This could have been the last word if not Larguier (1921) had written a book on psychology after the death of Binet with the title “Introduction a la psychologie – L’instinct et l’émotion” in which Mach’s ideas play a central role (the details of this will be evaluated below).

  • 12  Binet probably knew Mach’s writings from Carus’ magazines The Monist and The Open Court, because B (...)
  • 13  One has to keep in mind that this is at least the second time Binet reads about these ideas as he (...)

15From the letters, one can safely state that Binet a) knew and revered Mach, b) must have read some12, but certainly not too much from Mach and c) that he was genuinely interested in Mach’s opinion on the question of the relation between the body and the soul (l’Âme et le Corps). Certainly the reading of Mach (in the article and from the books Mach sent to him) triggered within Binet some inspiration about the limitations of his own epistemology, as becomes clear from his description of his “slightly adventurous course in the area of metaphysics”.13

Origins14 of Binet’s epistemology and similarities to Mach’s


  • 15  Further influences of Ribot’s work on Binet will be found in the examples on pedagogy (see below).

16A joint origin of central ideas of Binet and Mach was certainly the epistemology of Ribot. Especially important for both became the idea of the self as a construct. As we will see later, both drew slightly different conclusions out of it, but both quoted Ribot. This idea led other people (the “next generation” of researchers) to the intensive studies of the subconscious later (for example Janet, Jastrow, Hart, and maybe Freud, see Münsterberg 1910).


  • 16  Stallo was born in Oldenburg (Germany) and emigrated to the US. After his retirement he lived in I (...)

17Binet read J. B. Stallo’s “The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics” relatively early, as he stated in “Sensation and the Outer World” (Binet 1887; 1889). Stallo was the first US-American16 to publish a book on the epistemology of science (in 1882). His book was translated into French just two years later with an introduction by the chemist C. Friedel. He was therefore more known in France than in his native country Germany.

  • 17  Paul Carus was editor of “The Monist” and “The Open Court”, the journals in which Mach and Binet p (...)
  • 18  See Mach in Stallo (1901).

18In his article from 1889, Binet seems to have been strongly influenced by Stallo. At least he can be said to have found a strong affinity to Stallo’s epistemology. This is in so far important for Binet’s relation to Mach, as Stallo was regarded by Mach as a “related soul” in epistemology. Mach got to know about Stallo’s work only after he read a quotation in an article from Bertrand Russell, after which he spent much energy to locate Stallo in the US through Paul Carus17. Just upon locating him, Mach became half-paralyzed by a stroke. At the time Mach had sufficiently recovered, Stallo died (1900) in Italy, where he had retired. Mach organized a translation of Stallo’s “Concepts” into German in 1901, to which he wrote the foreword. In it, Mach praises Stallo for making a clear distinction between subjective concepts and physical realities. He agrees with Stallo’s analysis, but not with philosophy as Stallo’s starting point. Mach’s own starting point were his empirical results of psychophysical experiments.18

19Binet praises Stallo (1889, part II) for being in the tradition of Spencer and against “many contemporary physicist and philosophers, Wundt, Haeckel, Huxley, Dubois-Reymond”, who held a fundamentally “mechanical explanation”. Binet quotes Stallo especially in the area regarded as crucial by Binet that “knowledge we possess of nature, resting upon observed relations, cannot pretend to an absolute character.” Binet then continues to state that one central argument he found omitted by Spencer and Stallo is that the “mechanical theory has failed to recognize the purely subjective nature of our sensations, […] still adhering to that crude realism which, since the time of Berkeley, is no longer discussed.”

20Binet of course is known as a believer in vitalism (Binet 1888, p. III). Nevertheless, it is interesting that he relies on Stallo who has an – regarding the question of mechanism vs. vitalism – neutral philosophy instead of looking for a vitalist perspective. This would point to assuming that Binet’s empiricist intuitions were stronger than his (vitalist) speculations. This is probably also the main point which drew him to Mach.

21If one compares the positions of Binet, Stallo and Mach in relation to empiricism and the role of the observer, Binet and Mach were closer to Berkeley (and thereby closer to each other), while Stallo was closer to Kant. In the beginning of his article for L’Anneé Psychologique Mach states the same point as Binet in the above quotation by criticizing Kant for his thing-in-itself and retracing instead also back to a point of view similar to Hume and Berkeley. Percy W. Bridgman in his introduction to a re-edition of Stallo’s “Concepts and Theories” in 1960 criticizes Stallo as being too close to Kant to be Machian. Mach was mostly known in physics for his criticism of Newtonian mechanics, which lead to the development of quantum mechanics and relativity theory, both of which are actually not mechanical, but ultimately subjective (the observer is an integral part of the observed system in both). Mach (1905, p. 14) objected to the view of Haeckel and Ostwald, which rejects the “psychological observation as an equally important and fundamental source of knowledge as the physical observation.” Mach (1923, p. 434) writes on materialism: “For most natural scientists and many philosophers, who do not admit it, the thought that all psychical could be deductible to the material in private is very congenial. Even if this materialism has a catch, it is not the worst possibility; it stands at least with one foot on secure ground. But if all psychical should be understandable physically, why not the other way round? […] Is the other [psychical] foot standing in the air ? I would prefer […] to stand on both feet. There is no necessity to become dualist thereby for the one, who considers both feet as equal and both floor spaces under the soles to belong not to two different worlds.” For Mach, the observation has to bridge the gap from both perspectives, like building a “tunnel” from both sides simultaneously (Mach in his article for Binet 1906). It is a question of the psychophysical relation.


  • 19  Larguier (1921, p. 80) actually argued that the “contemporary monists”, borrowed their “formula of (...)
  • 20  A detailed comparison of the genesis and interrelations of these approaches will still need furthe (...)

22One of the central questions that Binet and Mach have been following is the question of the “psychophysical” relation, the question that the generation of researchers before and around Mach (such as Helmholtz, Wundt, Ribot or Müller) raised and Fechner19 became most famous for. After Lamarck and Spencer, but the latest after the publication of Darwin’s “Origin”, it became clear that psychological and physiological questions had an influence on physics as well as philosophy. Many researchers such as James, Bergson and Stallo, but also Mach and Binet tried to answer the question how a new psychophysical epistemology might look like. Their answers were as different as their approaches20.

23Binet wrote early empirical works on “The Psychic Life of Micro-Organisms” (1894) and “The Sub-Intestinal Nervous System of Insects” (1894), physiological subjects, but from a psychological point of view. He noticed that the nervous system and even the behaviour of micro-organisms cannot be explained without taking reference to the psychological realm. Two concepts from there shall not leave him for the rest of his academic career : perception and intelligence. By postulating that micro-organisms have a “psychic life” of sensation and reaction (Binet 1894, pp. 2), which requires judgement of the choice of food and the actions required to make the choice. Protozoa exist as well in humans, for example as brain cells. The question, how these specialized cells are responsible for intelligence continues into the same direction. By seeing the difference as only quantitative, not qualitative, Binet made a very far-reaching genetic claim against the absoluteness of classifications. This claim leads him directly to the study of psychology. In his observations and experiments with hysterical patients from Charcot, Binet (together with Ribot and Janet) had discovered, that additionally to developing gradually, intelligence was not monolithical, but consisted of different parts, which only finally were constructed into a consistent-looking self and consciousness. By illnesses, accidents and some special states of mind, consciousness and the self can disintegrate. This question seemingly led him to the question of self, will and consciousness (conscience), so mostly philosophical questions. It also led him to the question of the “outer world”, i.e. the physical world that plays the counterpart in the construction of the self.

24Binet gives an example of his concept of the psychophysical relation in his article on “Sensation and the Outer World” (Binet 1889, p. 1-2) :

25“Sensation is generally described as if it were produced directly by the contact of the external object with our organ of sense. But, manifestly, this is erroneous. When an object excites in us a sensation, it accomplishes this through the intermediary agency of our nervous system. The pin rolling about beneath our fingers first irritates the corpuscles of touch that lie disposed beneath the skin for the reception of tactile excitations. Thence the excitation travels the nervous fibres, called the sensitive nerves, that lead to the spinal marrow ; having reached the marrow, the excitation ascends by following the posterior ramifications of that organ ; it traverses the bulb, follows the cerebral peduncles, penetrates into the corona radiata of Reil, and finally gets into the grey cortical matter of the convolutions of the brain, which is probably its final place of reception. At that instant the conscious sensation is produced. In order to be exhibited, it is necessary that the peripheral excitation traverse all these successive stages, which even now we know so imperfectly. If the path followed by the excitation is interrupted at some point, if the nerve for example is severed, if the spinal marrow is interrupted by transverse myelitis ; if, in fine, for any cause whatsoever the excitation does not get as far as the brain, there is no sensation, no perception.” In the following, Binet mentions the concepts of “pure sensations” and of the “boundary of sensation”.

26Mach describes the psychophysical relation (in his article for l’Anneé Psychologique, 1906, p 593-594) : “The bodies, which surround us are not as immediately familiar as they seem at first sight. We see objects only in the presence of a self-illuminating body and these objects show their usual colour only with sunlight. I only hear the bell, if it is reverberated by a clapper. […] In order to feel the stone, I have to touch it. The way, how the bodies, which surround me appear to me depends on other bodies in my surroundings. Among these bodies, the ones which constitute my organism have a special importance. […] My ear has to be healthy in order to hear the sound of the vibrating bell. The hand has to have sensation in order to feel the stone. […] The way that we perceive the sound of a bell depends on its form, on the concussion it received, on the medium, which is between the bell and the ear and finally on the ear itself.”

27First it is interesting, how similar both describe sensation and perception as a process. Both are very relational in their description (sensation as a relation between the “world” and the “self”). Both see the functionality of physiology as an integral part of this psychophysical relation. But, while Binet is very detailed in his description of the nervous system part of the sensual relation, Mach is obviously much more detailed on the question of the physical part of the relation. Binet uses the rather philosophical concept of an “object”, which is defined as the counterpart of the perceiving “subject” in order to define the physical world. By this, Binet postulates a Kantian “thing-in-itself”.

28Contrary to Binet, Mach was primary a physicist, but very early even in his study time started to focus on physiology (see Swoboda 1973). Based on the genetic idea of Lamarck, Spencer and Darwin (see Mach 1909), bit by bit he found that looking at the physical part of physiology, it could not be explained properly without the physical perspective of the observer (Doppler effect), but also the psychology of the observer (including the “interpretation” already conducted by the nerves, as for example in the retina, before any intellectual interpretation), which brought him to psychological side of the psychophysical relation. Finally, in terms of a monistic approach to genesis, he found that one has to include the epistemology, so the philosophical side of the relation as well. He himself stated that as a result of this, he had at least three different world views at different times.

  • 21  The concept of “thing” is used here seemingly as synonymous to “object”.
  • 22  The author has taken the liberty to adapt the sentence slightly in the translation in order to mak (...)
  • 23  For detailed examples, see the works of Jakob von Uexküll, of whom Mach in this respect was an adm (...)

29Contrary to psychologists, such as Binet or James, Mach instead distinguishes clearly between the intellectual concept of an “object” and the phenomenal concepts of bodies, colours, etc. “The thing21 is therefore an intellectual entity (a complex of views or a scientific concept) ; the phenomenon on the contrary is a sensual entity, which can concur with the intellectual entity and can achieve the expectations, which it induced, but which it can also completely disappoint.“ (Mach, 1906, p. 600)22 What Mach does in this case is to use Binet’s critique of the abstraction from the physiological in the concept of perception also on the physical part of perception. The world as we can know it consists only of the relations between objects or things, not of the objects themselves. We may state that bodies, such as pins, exist, because they are constituted by relatively more stable relations between their molecules than the air surrounding them. A pin in the centre of the earth would not exist, because it would immediately melt ; the same pin in 100.000 years will also not exist, because it will have rusted. The phenomenon of a pin, which can be touched, exists, because our sensual organs and our whole body (including time perception) is constructed in a certain way. This ontogenetic “construction” is in turn the result of the phylogenetic adaptations of our ancestors. If we would be built different, or would live in a sufficiently different environment, our concept of “pin” would also be necessarily different, because our sensual experience of the “pin” would have been different.23 If for example we would be pygmies, we would make smaller pins, because their haptics would not be the same for us. When Binet describes the touching of the pin, he abstracts for instance from these motor sensations, probably because he does not focus his attention on them.

30The problem with perceptions is that the larger part of them are not conscious, or only in a very abstracted form. Mach (1919, pp. 101-139) showed this in detail for the motor perception of the eyes, where one can attach small “weights” in the form of putty to the eyeball, which leads to an according “misconception” of angles and spaces. But this can also be exemplified by viewing emotions and feelings as a result of body perceptions, as Damasio (2003) for instance does. Mach (1906, p. 603) states that the same as one regards our experiences of the “outer world” deriving only of sensual perceptions, “one has to say the same about all experiences regarding our own body, although it is not usual to classify the organic sensations among the sensual perceptions”. The border between inner and outer world “goes right through the consciousness”. Mach disagrees with Bergson, Binet (and the early James). For him the concept of consciousness is not very well equipped for analyzing this distinction. On the contrary, “the self and the external world are therefore no metaphysical concepts, but empirical constructs (assumptions)”. He agrees with Kant that any assumed abstractions of concepts from a potential experience are useless phantoms. But contrary to Kant, he counts the thing-in-itself among those phantoms.

31Mach’s critique of the Kantian thing-in-itself goes beyond physics into philosophy. The thing-in-itself is not a physical, but an intellectual (i.e. philosophical) postulate. “When we analyze our thoughts, even the most abstract, we have to notice that they directly or indirectly contain the elements of our sensual perceptions in an undefined form and newly interconnected.” (Mach 1906, p. 603) These sensual roots should not be abstracted from in order to keep them hidden in intuition. “[…] it is not enough to replace the instinctively acquired opinions of everyday life, which have crept into philosophy under different guises, by a purely scientific perspective. One has to lay bare their psychological roots ; otherwise they will continue to tiller.” (Mach 1906, pp. 598-599).

32It is therefore interesting to note that Binet uses the concept of “object” very uncritically, while on the other hand as we noted before in Binet’s relation to Stallo takes a Berkeleyan stand in principle towards mechanistic explanations. Probably one has to state here that Binet is too little of a physicist in order to notice the contradiction. Interestingly, Mach (1906, p. 612) at the end of his article for Binet refers exactly to this problem when he states that the physicist “relies on concepts so abstract, that he during his work tends to forget the countless sensual elements, which serve as basis for his measures and apparatus. He holds the result of his research for something objective, which can be generally applied and that deserves more trust than the special perception. […] The physiologist studies the organism of the human or the animal as a pure physicist and chemist. But as soon as an analogous induction prompts him to add perception to the purpose of his research, he fancies that he is leaving the objective and entering the area of the unknown, intangible. He does not think about that the physicist does constantly make use of these analogous inductions, for example when he sees the moon, which is only accessible to his eye, as a tangible mass […]. The psychologist is submitted to the prejudices of physics, – as the biological callings urge every human to behave as a physicist –, the psychologist assumes the contrariety of two heterogeneous worlds ; whereas for the physicist the psychological world seems intangible, he instead sees in the latter something immediately given, the necessary starting point ; but from his philosophical position, the physical world is projected into an unreachable distance.” But for Mach, this result is not a necessity.

  • 24  The clarity of my vision is better with the left eye ; while the receptiveness for spectral colour (...)

33Mach continues (1906, p. 595) : When one generalizes and specifies experiences in this way, one cannot without reservation claim, that there is a world, which is the same for everybody and immediately given for everybody. We at least have to admit that this common world appears a little different to everybody, depending on the peculiarities of one’s organism. Additionally it happens, that one of our senses, for example sight, shows a world, which another, our sense of touch, cannot correct. Sometimes this world is not even the same for the right and the left eye.24 […] So that which we call world is first and foremost a product of the activity of the sense organs. This product is doubtless in most cases the last link in a chain of perceivable dependencies, the other end of which lies beyond these organs. There are certain cases, where the individual is unable to discover for himself, without help from outside, up to which point from the last link this chain goes.”

  • 25  Binet published in them nearly 20 times and Mach nearly 40 times. Additionally Carus published the (...)

34It is strange that Mach’s article seems to be so closely tailored like a psychogram towards Binet’s epistemology, that either Mach had a very good intuition, or we have to assume that he had studied Binet much closer than we could assume from Mach’s other writings. He certainly had writings from Binet through his complete collection of the Monist and The Open Court in which both of them frequently published25.


  • 26  He is very obviously so in L’Evolution Creatrice.

35One of the philosophical links between Mach and Binet is certainly Bergson. Both have read Bergson’s work and had contact with him. Seen from a Machian perspective, Bergson is clearly genetic in his approach26, but abstracts from the psychological roots (phenomena) of this genesis in a peculiar way. He does see that there are psychological roots of scientific and philosophical concepts. But he uses and invents concepts, like that of intuition, as a sort of intellectual “black box” to capture all of this process, without attempting to go into the details and the genetic origin of the process. For example his intuition is “a fleetingly lighted up picture, which maybe unconscious to [the philosopher], continuously pursues him, like a shadow follows him through all the windings of his thought, and that, even if it is not intuition itself, gets much closer to it than the conceptual expression, which necessarily is symbolical, on which the intuition has to fall back in order to be able to “explain”.” (Bergson 1907 ; 1911, p. 128).

36For Mach, this usage of concepts is highly metaphysical and especially so, because the psychological roots of Bergson’s concepts, such as intuition, will, etc. are not uncovered. Later he would regard them as potentially dangerous for sprouting more metaphysical fungus. For example, when Bergson writes on “pure perception and pure memory”, for Mach this purity, like the absolute truth, can never be achieved and is therefore a thing-in-itself. The Thing-in-itself impermissibly abstracts from the sensual elements of perception. Perception and memory are always relational and even if they are “elementary”, they can never be pure. It is not by chance that Mach has a much broader concept of memory, i.e. that from Hering, which comprises biological memory (e.g. genes) and knowledge into a single concept.

  • 27  Mach calls “the border U” what Bergson names the “office of the body”. In naïve psychology, we usu (...)

37For Mach, the question “where in the operations of memory, the office of the body begins and where it ends” (Bergson 1907 ; 1911, p. 85) is not an answerable question, as in his psychophysics, the “border U” is different.27 Elements are dependent on external and internal circumstances, but they cannot be “cut” at the border of the self. Mach hereby redefines the concept of “self”. The “extended self”, as Mach calls it, includes the totality of the psychical. It is thereby just the difference to the self of others. Then the “border U” exists and “cuts right through consciousness” (Mach 1905, p. 9). The elements remain whole, as the border is a result of them in the first place. Like the concept of self, it is formed still instinctively, but only as intuitive gestalt from primary instincts and perceptions. The “border U” may and should be an object of observation, but only from a psychophysical standpoint (p. 18).

38From a psychophysical position, the differentiation between appearance and object does not make sense anymore (p. 10/11). It is a reappearance of the naive physics’ distinction between illusion and reality. “Our imagination, by completing observations partly in the way most familiar to it, sometimes thereby falsifies these observations.” Therefore, as soon as the difference between thing and appearance has been formed by our firstly imprecise, naive thinking, it tends to enter also into the philosophical thinking, which has much difficulty getting rid of this. All delusions depend on the fact that we do not sufficiently know the circumstances under which we make an observation, or that we do not pay attention to them, or that we suppose other circumstances than the prevailing ones.

  • 28  These are hen-egg problems, which are like trying to draw a triangle in one dimension.
  • 29  For this, Bergson distinguishes between centrifugal and centripetal nerves, a concept Binet adopts (...)

39Therefore Bergson’s first question (1911), i.e. the interpretation of how to distinguish the “border of U” is a tricky one. His second question on the distinction between perception and memory is necessarily very artificial (metaphysical in Mach’s sense). As they are linked in a continuous (co-evolutionary) feedback cycle, no purity in this distinction is possible, neither is this distinction possible between action and perception.28 The concept of “hapts” would otherwise not make sense. It would also not make sense, if hapts would not have been so important for the evolution of humans, so that a relatively large part of our brain is “reserved” for them. Because of this, hapts are so central for learning. So Bergson’s distinction between action and perception29 equally does not make sense for Mach, at least with the sharpness Bergson proposes. Nevertheless, this question will become very central for Binet and later for Piaget (see below).

  • 30  Mind and Matter was in his library and Creative Evolution is mentioned in his notebooks (in 1908, (...)

40But in spite of these differences, Mach read Bergson30 quite intensively and regarded him highly as a philosopher. He also sent some of his publications to him. In his reply letter (Thiele 1969) Bergson also stated his very high admiration for Mach. He states that their “subjects of research are different” and their methods are “not the same”, but that he “arrives in more than one point at conclusions totally reconcilable” with Mach’s. As Bergson was a good friend of William James, who in turn was a high admirer and friend of Mach, this is not so surprising. For example, in his introduction to a publication of James’ works (1911 ; 1985, pp. 234), Bergson explicitly used Mach’s concept of thought economy, of which James also has been very fond of.

  • 31  While Bergson can be said to take an aloft philosophical meta-perspective, Mach and Binet believe (...)

41While Bergson thereby takes a finalistic perspective, so a typically philosophical, Binet takes a genetic perspective and in this he is more Machian.31 Mach described this difference in a letter to Friedrich Adler (Haller & Stadler 1988, p. 297/298) : “If one philosophises for the sake of a scientific world view, it depends on 1st at which phase of the natural world view one begins and 2nd which goal one aims for. If one starts with [examples from Adler, but this part seems to be generalizable], so one already assumes hereby an already relatively developed natural world view. The initial phase of my natural world view, from which I wrote the Analysis of Sensations, was a different, more primitive. I thought myself artificially back to the point of view of a child, which just begins to differentiate between its body and the surroundings. From this results first the double way of dependency of the elements from each other, which in the first place leads to the concepts of subject, object, from the self to [example from Adler], which are nothing fundamental here. If one knows the elements, but not the self yet, there is no reason for distinguishing the elements of the self form others.” This argument is very interesting, because it is a result of Ribot’s and Binet’s empirical findings that the self is a construct. Consequently, Mach goes back to the genesis process, before this construct was formed. Mach continues : “For our goal, I attach the most importance to connect the elements with spatial and temporal concepts.” At the end of the letter, Mach cites his article for Binet.

A continuing influence: Piaget and Larguier des Bancels on Mach


42Piaget actually wrote little about Mach, but there is a very telling exception: Mach (1905) quotes an episode from Powell on the Indian chief Chuhar. Chuhar is an Indian chief, who interprets an optical phenomenon (i.e. misinterpreting the width of a chasm, while trying to throw stones onto the other side) as a physical “pull” of the depth of the chasm. He likens it to the psychological attraction of depths and interprets it as a physical phenomenon (Mach 1905, p. 120). Mach suggested that an experiment (e.g. moving a scales half-way over a chasm) should resolve the issue. Piaget (1978, p. 150) commented on this by criticizing Mach for taking chief Chuhar serious. What for Mach was two concepts, from which the one closer to the description of phenomena could be found by appropriate experiments (i.e. by putting a scales in equilibrium half-way over the chasm), Piaget saw as an absurd example "One can ask oneself whether the answers just analyzed are really primary and the first stage of the childlike animism. We have found 5 to 6 year-old children, who had reached already later stages."

43From a Machian perspective, Piaget overlooked that his “stages” are not primary age, but culture-dependent. This in turn constituted Bruner’s critique on Piaget : the omission of culture on the development (cultural genesis) of children (for details, see Siemsen & Siemsen 2008). If one does not take historically earlier or culturally different explanatory gestalt concepts serious, one will never be able to help people to see their inconsistencies and move on to more consistent (scientific) concepts. If not addressed and connected to the old gestalt, newly taught concepts will remain superficial. Gestalts tend to be psychologically very stable (see also Lorentz 1959). These questions were central to Piaget’s relation to Binet as we will see later.

Larguier des Bancels

  • 32  One should note here, that gestalt psychology (by von Ehrenfels, Wertheimer, Köhler, Karl and Char (...)

44Larguier, the translator of Mach’s article for L’année psychologique, wrote in 1921 a book on psychology (to the memory of Binet) with the title “Introduction a la psychologie – L’instinct et l’émotion”. In this book, Larguier attempts a reevaluation of Binet (the second chapter is titled “l’Âme et le Corps”) reflected mainly on the epistemology of Mach, but including current psychological research, such as gestalt psychology32 (for example Köhler).

  • 33  This is a conceptual development from Binet’s concept of “corps” in l’Âme et le Corps.

45Larguier changes Binet’s “object” view of physics into a phenomenal (Machian) view (p. 20) : “I watch the moon at the moment when she rises. […] the phenomenon does not exist without an observer“. This leads to a functional identity between the object of psychology and that of physics, the idea of which according to Larguier is not new. “It is however Mach, to whom we have to give credit for drawing the consequences of the idea touching the point in question.” Mach in Larguier’s view (p. 21) consequently sees “the [living] body as the totality of the nerves belonging to it”. Larguier agrees with this view completely, replacing the word “body”33 with “individuum” and especially the “observing individuum”. “But this substitution has the advantage of excluding all the initial hypotheses about the role of the body and to drive away certain phenomena, which all in all complies to physics, but which one should restate to psychology, if Mach’s definition is to be accepted in all its vigour.” In short, Larguier puts this aspect of Mach’s psychophysics at the basis of his “object” of psychology. He wants to add this view to psychology, from which it seems to be lacking.

  • 34  Larguier adds in a footnote that “this continued to receive different names : sensations, ideas, r (...)

46Larguier spends most of his book on Descartes, but mostly on overcoming Descartes’ mechanistic view (that already Binet in 1889 had criticized heavily on the basis of Spencer and Stallo) by a synthesis of Binet, Mach (and a little bit of Bergson). He starts with Berkeley’s view (p. 81/82) that the “content of consciousness is homogeneous”34 and continues to the “works of Mach and Bergson” for a coherent epistemological base. The universal principle under which he wants to view consciousness and its concomitant cerebral phenomena is psychophysical parallelism understood in the definition of Mach, Flournoy and Müller and explicitly against Bergson (p. 83).

47Additional to that, Larguier (p. 26) accepts Mach’s pragmatic side of methodology by combining different psychological methods, such as the pathological method, the genetic method and the comparative method. He for example agrees with Binet’s “psychogenique” method of comparing series of “deficients” in order to follow in this series the evolution of a function.

  • 35  Consciously, Piaget had explicitly rejected Mach’s ideas.

48It is interesting to note this picking-up of the Binet-Bergson-Mach debate by Larguier. He certainly felt that the issues had not been settled. They had not been settled, because of Binet’s death, but also because of his focus towards education. But maybe therefore, this change of Binet’s focus was not a chance option borne out of opportunism for the governmental job. Maybe it was his way of continuing the research into the questions that seemed to have troubled him even after his publication of l’Âme et le Corps. Maybe instead of a new focus, he was taking advice from Mach and researching on the point of view that Mach took : the view of the child. And maybe he took on this Machian research program with the method he was so fond of, the experimental genetic method, the method that Larguier explicitly attributed to Binet (p. 26), the psychogénique method. And maybe Piaget was unconsciously continuing this program and thereby Mach’s questions.35 Of course these are only hypotheses, but Binet’s “mental orthopaedics” could be seen as a result of this (see below).


  • 36  The references of this part are all taken from Binet’s (1911) pedagogical book “Modern Ideas about (...)
  • 37  In the following, in cases where these philosophies are not concerned or are not discernable, no d (...)
  • 38  In the following many obvious examples of this will be provided, but first the methodology of deal (...)
  • 39  Mach and Binet strongly base their views on an evolutionary point of view and both are strongly in (...)

49The influence of these ideas can be exemplified in the area of pedagogy, an area, where both, Binet and Mach had a strong and lasting influence (see for instance Siegler 1992, Zazzo 1993, or Hohenester 1988). Pedagogy cannot be analyzed without its underlying epistemologies. In his last book on “New Ideas about Children”, Binet states that “The philosophy embodied in the program partially reveals the goal that is aimed for.” (Binet 1911 ; 1975, p. 18). In this sense, Binet in his pedagogy used two different philosophies, which in the following will be called Binet I and Binet II to discern them for discussion purpose.37 Both are alternatingly used in the same book although they are epistemologically inconsistent.38 His empirical intuitions seem to have led Binet from the one to the other, without consciously noticing the shift. As he wrote his pedagogical book shortly before his death, he was probably not able to make a synthesis of the two philosophies (for which it is all the more important in a historical work to distinguish them for future synthetic work). Binet I is intuitively mechanistic and constructivistically rationalistic (which seems strange given Binet’s vitalist credentials). Binet II is genetic, evolutionary and close to Mach.39 Binet II gives arguments for his philosophical foundations, while Binet I does not. Binet II might therefore be considered the scientifically more mature version of the two philosophies Binet uses in education, while Binet I represents his initial “common sense” pedagogical intuitions.

50As Mach has observed, once one has had a fundamental insight, it is a long and difficult work to integrate its implications into all dependent concepts and ideas. This of course does not lessen the value of the insight, but it makes the work more difficult for the intellectual successors (such as Piaget) to distinguish between the two processes. In Larguier’s sense, Mach’s epistemology might therefore be helpful to analyse in the case of Binet. As we will see, the epistemological problem will lead us via the concepts of culture and consciousness to the initial questions of Binet’s successors Piaget and Bruner.

The concept of culture

51The main difference between Binet I and Binet II is their concept of culture in relation to the concept of evolution. Can we (as descendents of a “Western science culture”) regard our current concepts as universals or as an “evolutionary goal” somehow ? Would that not be an anthropomorphic teleology brought into science, inconsistent with Darwin’s insights ? Binet II (p. 117) is quite clear about the influence of culture on pedagogy and the role of empiricism : “A study is not scientific until controlled experiments have been done. Thus while we welcome with immense satisfaction what has been achieved in America [by Dewey, Hall, etc. through the “active method”], we feel we cannot dispense with repeating these experiments on a small scale in a French school, with a view to scientific control and to the adaptation of the method to the needs of our own population, our own tradition, our own mores.” Just on the next page, Binet I states that “[…] we can say that [the active method] reproduces the fundamental law of evolution. Through it the child’s mind is made to follow the same paths the soul of humanity has followed.” Thus the “active method” is both universal and probably culturally limited, two views which obviously are incompatible. In a certain way, Binet (p. 115, see also p. 18) stated quite clearly, which of the two views he gives the preference : “Our plans and methods are only an illustration, and of course this illustration is very specially conceived for children of a certain age, of a certain intellectual development, from a certain culture.”

  • 40  In the following, I will use mainly quotations from Boas in order to show his genetic line of thou (...)
  • 41  Binet by the way had read Boas and quotes him in his “Modern Ideas” (p. 50), but only refers to hi (...)

52In order to further clarify the origin of this confusion, I will take a brief look at the views of the most influential US American anthropologist, Franz Boas.40 This is in so far important as the successors of Boas have had a strong influence on the developments of the ideas of Jerome Bruner (Bruner et al. 1967), who is probably the most influential successor of Piaget (and therefore indirectly of Binet’s ideas).41 Bruner’s PhD advisor originally started by studying a very similar phenomenon as Binet did when he started his mental orthopaedics : the idea of the relation between the best pupils and the laggards (Bruner 1967, pp. vii).

  • 42  While Franz Boas was president of the New York Academy of Science, he awarded an honorary membersh (...)

53Boas became famous for statistically showing (against his own initial intuition and the intuition of many Darwinians such as Galton42) that human bodily developments depended more on cultural upbringing than on biologically hereditary influences between humans (implied by the application of the concept of race). The children of immigrants to the US showed larger physical differences to their parents, while the differences between them became increasingly marginal with each generation after immigration. The whole of craniometry was therefore measuring cultural traits instead of being a proxy for biological ones as it itself supposed. Boas’ studies had implications not only for anthropology, but for the whole question of the relation between evolution and culture (see Stocking 1968).

54“The strict definition of a morphological type demands a statement of the variety of forms that an organism may take under varying conditions, for a morphological type without environmental conditions is non-existent and unthinkable. In [lower] animals we posit it because the variations brought about by environment are small as compared to the fundamental, stable characteristics. In contrast to this the physiological and psychological characteristics of the higher animals and particularly of man, are highly variable and can be stated only in relation to environmental, including physical and cultural conditions. The traits of personality belong to this class and have meaning only when expressed as reactions of the individual to varying types of environment, of which the existing culture is the most important.” (Boas, 1911, p. 141). The ideas of Binet on the individuality of learning correspond to this idea (see Zazzo 1993).

55The “races which we are accustomed to call ‘higher’” did not “by any means stand in all respects at the end of the series […] farthest removed from the animal.” (Boas, quoted after Stocking 1968 ; related to biological features) Actually one would have to add that even animals are superior to humans in some perceptive and cognitive faculties. “There is no fundamental difference in the ways of thinking of primitive and civilized man.” (Boas, p. v) “Added to this is the one-sided[ness] of our own […] modern civilization without any close enquiry into the mental processes of primitive races and cultures which may easily lead to erroneous conclusions.” (Boas, Mind of Primitive Man, p. 17).

56Boas details these “erroneous conclusions” by criticising Lévi-Bruhl in his assumption that “culturally primitive man thinks prelogically, that he is unable to isolate phenomena as such, that there is rather a “participation” in the whole mass of subjective and objective experience which prevents a clear distinction between logically unrelated subjects. This conclusion is not reached from a study of individual behaviour, but from the traditional beliefs and customs of primitive people. […] It would seem that if we disregard the thinking of the individual in our society and pay attention only to current beliefs that we should reach the conclusion that the same attitudes prevail among ourselves that are characteristic of primitive man. The mass of material accumulated in the collections of modern superstitions proves this point and it would be an error to suppose that these beliefs are confined to the uneducated. […] such belief may persist as an emotionally charged tradition among those enjoying the best of intellectual training. Their existence does not set off the mental processes of primitive man from those of civilized man.” (Boas, p. 135) It here becomes clear from the example of Chief Chuhar that Mach’s concept of intelligence is closer to Boas relative to Piaget’s and Binet’s.

57Boas also gives quite a detailed critique on Rousseau’s assumption of a natural man “all for himself” Emile. For Boas, Emile is not an intuitive assumption, he is an (unrealistic) fiction : “We should be clear in our minds regarding the difference between the phenomena of culture themselves and the abstract concepts of qualities of the human mind that are deduced from cultural data but that have no cultural meaning if conceived as absolute, as existing outside of a culture. The assumption that at some time the mental qualities of man existed in vacuo is untenable, for all our knowledge of man is derived from the behaviour under given cultural conditions.” (Boas, 1911/1938, p. 140-141) Boas criticizes early experimental psychology for the same reasons of putting their results into their assumptions : “Experimental psychology, in its earlier stages was sterile because it operated with the theory of the existence of an absolute mind, not subject to the environmental setting in which it lives.” (Boas, 1911, p. 141).

58Finally, Boas criticizes the idea of intelligence as something that can be meaningfully measured : “It would be a difficult undertaking to prove an increase in intelligence, or an increase of the ability to evaluate experiences. A candid study of the inventions, observations and evaluations of man in the most diverse forms of culture gives us no basis for the claim that there has been any development of these qualities. We only find an expression of the application of these faculties to more or less highly individualized cultures.” (Boas, 1911, p. 142).
If one compares Binet’s concept of intelligence (Binet I) with Boas’, it becomes clear that what Binet is measuring in his intelligence scale (and especially his “stages”) is a cultural concept : Binet presupposed intelligence as logical thinking, while everybody not brought up in the same Western middle-class culture is necessarily unintelligent by definition. Boas’ concept of intelligence assumes that intelligence must be existent in all cultures. Therefore any definition founded only on one culture must be fundamentally flawed.

  • 43  Actually, even Binet’s own concept of intelligence shifts (see Siegler 1992).
  • 44  At the time he is obviously still lacking a constructive solution (not an intuitive one as he had (...)
  • 45  One could argue that Binet derived his idea of “mental orthopaedics” from the US-American “learnin (...)

59Interestingly, the same question can be found in the differences between Binet I and Binet II. Binet often uses the very same position he criticizes in his definition of intelligence (e.g. intelligence as “mature”, p. 94).43 For example Binet “believes that any intellectual retardation equal to two years [according to his stage model] constitutes serious presumptive evidence for mental retardation”, comparing them to “adult imbeciles” (p. 94). He notices that this definition would apply to nearly all “normal adults”, who are “members of the working class” : “From the standpoint of abstract comprehension, they do not perform beyond the twelve-year level.” Binet’s intuition (which he as we remember called “slightly adventurous” towards Mach) takes him to be often generalizing overly fast and then contradicting himself with some other empirical observations. Binet’s strength as a researcher is that he does not become stuck by this. Every time he notices resulting inconsistencies, he carefully retraces his steps and tries another construction closer to empirical evidence. This process becomes the motivation for many of his intuitions for empirical studies and experiments.
Even when Binet measured workers children as being on average two years behind (p. 104), he notices that there must be something wrong with the notion that they should therefore all be mental laggards or retarded (although he avoids to address this problem directly).44 Exactly here the epistemological priority for his empirical intuition comes into play. He notices that something methodological in education needs to be done, not for the top children, but specifically for the laggards (the same idea that Bruner and his teacher had). He therefore starts experimenting with them (this must have happened between 1906 and 1910, probably around 1907/08, so just after his stronger involvement with Mach’s ideas). The result is his “mental orthopaedics”.45

  • 46  For the similarity of these ideas to the sensualistic part of Mach’s pedagogical ideas, see Hohene (...)

60What is “mental orthopaedics” according to Binet ? “[…] mental orthopaedics exercises […] can make it possible to assimilate any kind of knowledge. This is so because any knowledge is summarized into an action which this very knowledge enables one to execute. Consequently it is possible to learn through action […]. To know multiplication does not consist of being able to repeat the definition of this operation, but of combining any multiplicand and any multiplier and giving the correct product. It is therefore always possible to replace the formula by the exercise, or rather to begin with the exercise and to wait until the practice of it has resulted in training and the formation of a habit. Then the rule, the formula, the definition, the generalization can be introduced. […] Teach arithmetic by giving problems to be solved, geometry by having things constructed, the metric system by having measurements made, physics by having small rudimentary apparatus built and operated. […] Nature furnishes the activities ; the teacher only intervenes to guide them“(p. 116/117).46

61Judging from his description, Binet was surprised by the success and the broad applicability of his “mental orthopaedics” exercises, which he originally seems to have introduced more or less by chance and only for low achieving students. Just like Comenius had introduced theatre in the teaching of Latin (a teacher had told him of the success of this method) and then intensified and broadened this method after he saw its success, Binet promotes this method as “the only way to teach” (sic !, p. 114), but without recourse as to why it was successful. It is therefore an intuitive empirical method, which had no influence on his philosophy anymore (probably because he found it seemingly only shortly before his death). Otherwise Binet might have noticed the relation of these exercises with the sensualism of Mach.

62Maybe he was here too much following Bergson’s and Ribot’s interpretation of motor perception as exclusively physical instead of psychological phenomena, an idea, which according to Mach’s experiments does not comply with the psychophysical facts (Mach 1886). Ribot (1889) for instance states that “Every intellectual state is accompanied by determinate physical manifestations. Thought is not, as many still hold by tradition, an event that takes place in a supra-sensuous, ethereal, inapprehensible world.” Ribot’s study of attention thereby acquires a strong physical bias, which Mach already criticized (1886, p. 17). Interestingly, this is a question, which Piaget picked up again in a late phase of his work.

  • 47  This is in principle the same Hobbesian idea that Galton had. That this deduction is not logically (...)
  • 48  Boring also describes the influences of Mach’s epistemology on the Würzburg school. While Külpe wa (...)
  • 49  The details of this research can be found in Siemsen & Siemsen (2009).

63Piaget’s long time assistant and collaborator Bärbel Inhelder (in Piaget & Garcia 1983 ; 1989, p. viii/ix) states : “In this work [with E.W. Beth], which represents the second synthesis of epistemology as conceived by Piaget, Beth analyzed the foundations of mathematics while defending the principle that logic and the psychology of knowledge should be autonomous principles. This book, thus, constitutes a provisional completion of an attempt to relate formal models to empirical thinking, which characterized the “structuralist” period in Piaget’s research. With this new impetus, Piaget embarked upon the thirds phase of his research by studying two important problems that had remained unresolved until then : physical thought and a complete reorganization of a theory concerning developmental mechanisms.” It is interesting to note that in this work, Beth is the one who quotes Mach (Beth & Piaget, pp. 26) and Piaget mentions Binet as foundational (Beth & Piaget, p. 139). According to Piaget, Binet developed his ideas parallel, but independent to the Würzburg school of psychology (Marbe, Külpe, Bühler, Selz). The Würzburg school researched on the relation between judgement and association. In empirical research based on introspection, they found that images cannot be completely accounted for by (conscious) association. From this they deduced47 that conscious logic is part of making judgements (see also Boring48 1950). Karl and Charlotte Bühler were part of the Würzburg school before they founded their own psychological institute in Vienna. There, Charlotte worked with a young Finnish psychologist named Eino Kaila on the question of the origin of gestalt perception.49 This similarity between Binet’s psychology and the psychophysics in Finland will be briefly shown below.

Conscious vs. unconscious learning or Binet’s empirical solution: “mental orthopaedics”

  • 50  I will here mostly refer to the empirical concept of the unconscious and subconscious as elaborate (...)

64With Boas’ anthropological insights, let us take a closer look into Binet’s ideas, especially his intuitions, which brought him to develop the “mental orthopaedics” (what Binet called the “deeper meaning of the mental orthopaedics”, p. 116). We thereby apply the ideas, which led Bruner to his insights on Binet’s ideas via Piaget, directly to Binet. This will also lead back to the question, what exactly the initially proposed epistemological difference between Binet I and Binet II might be. I will now try to focus on the (mainly unconscious50) intuitions guiding the ideas of Binet I and Binet II. What is the greatest similarity between Binet II and Mach, which has the greatest difference to the views of Binet I ?

  • 51  One can observe here the “modernity” of Binet in terms of current issues in the educational debate (...)

65The seemingly strongest difference between Mach’s pedagogy and Binet I in relation to Binet II can be found in their view on sensualism. On the one hand Binet I distinguishes clearly between sensory and verbal intelligence and views the latter tacitly as a “higher stage”. On the other hand, Binet made a study on the “evolution of philosophical instruction in high schools and colleges” (p. 115). From this he concludes that it is not the students’ innate taste for discussing dialectic, which brings about the universities’ priority for verbalism, it is the university’s reliance on verbalism, which brings about the high school student’s habit of relying on verbalism. He even proposes a “war on verbalism”. This Binet II observes a (Machian) primacy of sensory learning : “… we feel [the teacher’s] words must not be the core […] of the lesson. They must only be […] a teaching aid. The student’s mind must be put in direct contact with nature […] or with schemata. Speech should only intervene to comment on the sensory impressions made. Above all the students must be active” (p. 115).51

66Is there a teleology involved in evaluating the relation between sensory and verbal ? The empirical Binet II (p. 21) strongly warns to view children as small adults and to assume an “average child”, for whom to design the teaching method. But then he himself slips to this very point of view of Binet I (e.g. p. 92) : “The young child displays a lack of direction in everything he undertakes. He is heedless and inconsistent. […] He does not go straight to the goal, as an adult would, but zigzags along, forever stopping or making unnecessary detours […]. […] As a matter of fact, an interpretation in depth is impossible for the child, because this requires language, and he is still at the sensory intelligence stage. The verbal intelligence stage begins later and consequently he does not understand many words which are very clear to us […].” Binet I then provides a teleological interpretation of genetic processes (p. 93) in which he supposes an “evolution of thought” from enumeration to description to interpretation (p. 117). He presupposes the most logical parts of language as “the most noble” (p. 93). This presupposition can already be found in Ribot’s (1899, p. 26) expression of a “logic of animals or rather the sole kind of logic possible without speech.” Ribot (1899, p. 27) is even explicit that this is a form of mental construction : “the aim is definite, and the means to attain it are invented.” Our Western form of logic thus becomes the final (i.e. teleological) goal, being presupposed as a necessary form of thought and as a yardstick for intelligence. This view of Binet I was mainly adopted by his successors. It is far away from Binet II and Mach.

67Language and logic thereby become prerequisites for “higher” thought. “Higher” thought of course is defined teleologically as ideal (current Western) scientific thought. This is tacitly assumed to be universal. The interesting empirical question is how ideal scientists really think. Do they think in language and logically or do they even think sensually ?

  • 52  What is special to this metaphor is that it hints at an interesting conceptual development : On th (...)
  • 53  Quoted after translations from Hadamard (1945).

68This question was first elaborated by Galton in his “Inquiries into Human Faculty” (1883), who found that sometimes people think in images instead of words. Consciousness for him is a judging monarch, who holds court over the thoughts brought to him from an unconscious “antechamber”.52 Binet II in his “Etude Expérimentale de l’Intelligence”53 (1903) follows up on this question with an experimental approach based on the reactions and introspection of his own children. To one of them an answer in words appears as “an image which cuts thoughts” (1903, p. 107). Thought appears “suddenly like any kind of feeling”. “In order to get images, I must no longer have anything to think of. They [ideas and images] are separated from each other and never come together. I never have any images when a word suggests to me a very great number of thoughts. I must wait for a while.” Binet I’s interpretation is that “thought” relates to “reflective thought” and “images” mainly to visual images, just as in Galton’s metaphorical court.

69Binet returns to the question of the relation between the sensual and the verbal when he leaves the discussion of memory and turns to ideas (p. 144/145). Here Binet I presupposes “types” of persons (visual, auditory, motor, verbal). For instance he asks people to visualize an object and then observes that for some, the image is quite vivid, while for others, it looks “weak or faded”. “These last forms are often found in the older and most intelligent children, in adults, especially in adults who are given to abstract cogitation. These special forms stand out as landmarks in the mental development of individuals and indicate which superior level they have reached.” Then Binet (p. 176) refers directly to the study by Galton : “[...] Galton’s colleagues answered in his questionnaire, that [a scholar] does not see anything he is thinking about, and when he thinks about one of his absent friends, he does not visualize the friend nor hear his voice to any degree but thinks about him in an abstract, free, and subtle form. If any sensory images are still evoked, they are only fragments, or they have the value of schemes or symbols which no longer correspond to the original real perception. Finally, they lose their relief and vividness to such an extent that they can no longer be recognized as representations of sensations. One more step and they disappear completely. Only the word remains. It too can come to play a secondary, fragmentary role and then fade away, as it were. Thought is now bare, reduced to a direction, a choice, a feeling, an attitude, an intellectual phenomenon which may be the most difficult thing in the world to explain and to understand.” In the reflection method “an idea is therefore completely conscious.” Binet II from an empirical point of view sees that this is obviously not happening in all cases. Therefore, he relates (with the intuition of Binet I) to categorizing different (biologically induced) “methods” of thought.

  • 54  Piaget’s ideas in this direction will be discussed below.

70What was the empirical observation leading him to this questioning of his absolutist position on consciousness ? In 1907, Henry Poincaré published an article in Binet’s l’Anneé in which he describes his introspectively observed experiences while making an important mathematical discovery. Interestingly, the major part of these experiences is obviously unconscious, intuitive. Binet’s first intuition (in a reply to Poincaré in l’Anneé and p. 181) is to ascribe this to an inherited “unconscious of great intelligence” (Galton’s concept of genius). “The pedagogy which is based on the virtuosity of the unconscious is therefore not suitable to all, only to some.” If Binet I would be right with this assumption, the “mental orthopaedics” of Binet II should have worked only for some and not as he had observed for all children. His mental orthopaedics can actually be interpreted as pedagogy based on the unconscious. What would have been the synthesis of the observations from his own children, the “mental orthopaedics” experiment and the observations of Poincaré for Binet II ? One can only speculate. But there have been two persons, who at the time followed up on these questions. One was the Dutch mathematician Ebert Willem Beth in the book he wrote together with Piaget (1966).54 The other person who tried to synthesize the ideas in 1945 with specific reference to Binet was the successor of Poincaré at the French Academy : Jaques Hadamard.

  • 55  Maybe because he is more empirical as a physicist.
  • 56  This idea leads to very interesting conclusions, which shall not be further elaborated here, but w (...)

71Jaques Hadamard (1945, p. 74) states Binet’s position more precisely “dealing only with a controlled thought, but not with a tense one”. Like Galton in his examination of the same question, Binet I (according to Hadamard) therefore stops the introspective reflection just before it becomes interesting. For Hadamard as for his predecessor Poincaré, introspection reveals more of the unconscious in cases of very intensive (“tense”) thoughts. Einstein in a letter to Hadamard (1945, p. 142/143) goes even one step further in his observations.55 His “elements of thoughts” are “of visual and some of muscular type”. “The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. […] It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others. […] Full consciousness is a limit case, which can never be fully accomplished.” These empirical observations (and their possible interpretations) have not been integrated in Binet’s ideas.56

  • 57  So both, Binet and Claparéde are stuck at the point of realizing the empirical futility of Bergson (...)

72But Binet II is also careful in this regard : “Let us guard against believing that a hierarchy, a class distinction should be established between sensory and verbal intelligence. Let us give up these old-world prejudices […].” (p. 197) But Binet refers this only to manual work and not to the question of learning in general. (According to Piaget (1966, p. 200) Binet in referring to his concept of ‘conscious reflective thought’, “concluded with a disillusioned outburst : “Thought is an unconscious activity of the mind”, and Claparède […] concluded that such a problem cannot be solved in the field of conscious data.”57

  • 58  This does not imply that they are arbitrary as the number of consistent description for a large nu (...)
  • 59  For Mach the age of 16 is about as far as we can remember our consciousness back into our youth. T (...)
  • 60  Therefore, some of Darwin’s successors, such as Galton and even Darwin himself partly still contin (...)

73How should one therefore address this problem ? It seems impossible to resolve, unless an important assumption is introduced at the basis of Binet’s thoughts : the genesis is not only dependent on the phylogeny and the ontogeny, but also on the cultural genesis. Our current thoughts as adults are the result of a cultural manifold and dependent on cultural conventions.58 This culture cannot be assumed “human-made” in the sense of a “conscious construction”. Humans therefore cannot change them “at will” as this would again require an omniscient consciousness. If we made a major part of our experience (and thereby our intuitive memory resulting from it) before we developed our “adult” consciousness59 and if thoughts are largely unconscious, the assumption of omniscience is obviously counterfactual. Reason is not constructed, but evolved as Friedrich Hayek (1975) has observed. Even rational actions are often not a result of conscious reflection. This idea of the enlightenment became inconsistent with the empirical facts of natural science after the publication of Darwin’s “Origin”.60 If we consistently follow this assumption for Binet, the ideas (basically Binet I), which are inconsistent with it can be disregarded and the other ideas of Binet followed further. As we have seen, this assumption is consistent with a part of Binet’s ideas, it is consistent with Binet’s empirical method and it is consistent with the ideas guiding one of his major successors, Jerome Bruner.

  • 61  One can see here the similarities to Binet’s critical study of the self-fulfilling introspections (...)

74Mach (1883, p. 471) uses a similar empirical argument in order to criticize Husserl’s phenomenology : “Especially what Husserl regards as degradation of the scientific knowledge, the connectivity to the vulgar (“blind”) thinking, I regard as an elevation. From a pure scholarly parlour affair becomes one which is deeply rooted in the life of humanity and powerfully reverberates back on it.”61

75Earlier “stages” in genesis processes might look like small developments, but this is only so when judged from an absolute growth point of view, not from a relative growth point of view. From hindsight, exponential growth processes (e.g. ex) “seem” to be slow in the beginning and “fast” later. This assumption is mistaking relative and absolute growth, so general and local references. The early genesis developments tend to have a continuing strong influence on the later ones (status nascendi). The seed of a tree grows the fastest (relative) in the beginning, but the most impressive (absolute) as a large tree. “Stages” are not “out there” in nature (perceived as immediate conscious data), but exist because they might seem as the most thought economical description of observed facts. Maybe we only observe these facts because we pay attention to the facts complying with the “stages” theory, overlooking the facts which do not. Methodologically, one can only find out if one empirically tries the other view.

  • 62  Judging from criticisms of school textbooks, etc. this is not a rare, but a common event, which ca (...)

76From a Binet II perspective, one can ask : if evolution (and human knowledge) evolves, how much focus should one attach to its current status ? In his above judgement of the behaviour of the child, Binet presupposes that there is only one “right” interpretation. What if there are other consistent interpretations, which do not match the one presupposed by the teacher (by Binet) ?62 Even in mathematics, there are often several consistent ways to a correct solution. How much can we therefore presuppose that only “our” way of thinking is the right one ?

77Binet describes the conventions he uses deriving from a process beginning with the sensory towards abstraction : “[…] we always begin with the concrete experience, the special fact […]. In so doing we always follow the easiest, the most normal course, the one which goes from the particular to the general.” (p. 117) And in another chapter : “The evolution [of thought] consists of passing from vagueness to precision, from the general to the specific” (p. 93). Do these conventions imply any teleology, or are they just thought economical ? Binet describes the process from the sensory to the abstract as a process of “vanishing” (p. 193), contrary to Mach, where these become an integral part of unconscious memory. But whereto does the sensory image vanish ? To the unconscious or to memory ?

78At the time up to Binet’s death, the concept of the unconscious was still largely undeveloped in psychology. The generation of psychologists before had started with equating psychic phenomena with conscious phenomena, which – given the importance of introspection – was a suggestive simplification. Binet II interestingly “stumbles” over non-conscious phenomena in learning by the surprising empirical results of what he calls “mental orthopaedics”. He does not though identify this with the unconscious. Instead he sticks with Charcot’s, Ribot’s and Janet’s empirical results of multiple consciousnesses observed in mental patients as the main empirical observation on the unconscious. His successors on the other hand did not take into account Binet’s “mental orthopaedics” in the new syntheses they tried.

Binet, Piaget and Bruner – following unresolved questions

  • 63  As one can see here, Binet is already using Piaget’s famous concepts of adaptation and assimilatio (...)

79For Binet, known to be the founder of the “intelligence scale”, intelligence means “assimilating what we learn to what we know” (p. 117). He further states that “Philosophically speaking, all intellectual life consists of acts of adaptation” (p. 115).63 Can there be “stages” in adaptation ? As adaptation is (according to Darwin) not teleological, such stages only (pre-) exist in the mind of the observer. They cannot be postulated as a necessary gestalt.

  • 64  As Mach had shown in his mechanics, this view is inherent in Newton, which led to Mach’s famous cr (...)

80As an example of a strong continuity of the concepts of Binet I between Binet and Piaget, Binet sees one of the main learning goals of small children in “becoming familiar with external objects” (p. 94). He also uses the ability of “defining objects” in order to test invention (p. 100). Piaget tacitly took over this view, writing extensively on object recognition. This perspective has two educational problems. On the one hand it is an inherently non-physicist point of view. It promotes an interpretation in children (and in the teacher), which consistently mistakes intellectual entities (objects) for physical entities (such as “bodies”) and calls this abstraction. This “naïve physics” perspective intuitively assumes that an observation can abstract from the observer. But such a view is not consistent with (modern) physics. It is metaphysical (in Mach’s view).64 Our senses ceaselessly act upon us in every observation and its interpretation, though most of this “acting upon” might not be consciously accessible for us. The assumption of the identification of objects as a primary form of learning might already start too abstract in the learning process (see the above quotation from Einstein and Mach’s discussion on early abstraction for a learner). Quantum physics tells that abstractions, such as “object constancy” are constructs based on conventions and specific physical observations close to daily sensual experience, but not on general empirical necessities in physical observation.

  • 65  The recent works of Lloyd & Sivin (2002) have attempted this and instead of universality found “cu (...)
  • 66  Unless one assumes either some timeless god’s to have known it before humans or define logic as a (...)

81In principle, Piaget is following Binet I in his basic teleological assumption : that logic is universal, i.e. independent of culture and cultural conventions, independent of evolution and the genesis process. As Piaget equally adapted ideas from Binet II, this would be less of a problem, except for a methodological one. Piaget (1966 in his book with Beth, p. 141) states : “We cannot oppose the search for connecting links between the mental mechanisms and logico-mathematical structures, since this is precisely our task.” Here Piaget does not follow his own advice by including logical assumptions into a genetic research method. But empirically, one would have to test the cultural universality of logic before including it into one’s genetic assumptions.65 Genetically, one would assume logic to be much younger (a few thousand years perhaps, or a few dozen in its latest version) than human thought (depending on which “homo” species one defines as the “starting point” of human thought minimum 100.000 years).66 The two should therefore be largely independent, except for their (genetically relatively recent) cultural interdependence. This question was only properly introduced with the ideas of Boas by Bruner. Piaget already noticed the epistemological interdependence our scientific concepts have, but this is true not only for the genetic question, but equally for logic as a part of scientific enquiry. Here one could argue that genesis (since Darwin’s publication of the “Origin”) has more empirical facts on its side than (the more metaphysical) logic. Logic has up to now not been shown to consistently describe these facts, only to order some abstracted forms of them on a higher level (see Kaila 1930). Piaget’s main strength like Binet’s therefore lies probably in his empirical intuition : he did the “right” things, but not necessarily for the “right reasons”.

82This is posing two interesting questions : The first is, if in this respect, Binet II is in a certain way “ahead” of Piaget’s doubts on him (his intelligence scale). Piaget was starting from a similar concept of intelligence as Binet (criticizing the scale, but not the “stages” concept) and had similar doubts only in 1971, so more than 60 years later. Maybe one can argue that Binet’s II’s “mental orthopaedics” concept has not been fully implemented in (science) education even until today and still poses an unrecognized challenge to education after a hundred years. The second question (which also Piaget posed when he had his doubts) is, how one should see the mental orthopaedics in terms of genesis : are there two (or more) types of pupils (biologically or culturally endowed), or is the mental orthopaedics genetically earlier, i.e. a foundational element for the development of logical thinking.

  • 67  For details on this and intelligence measurement related issues, see also (...)

83Concerning the first question, a rough sketch shall be sufficient. Piaget was student of Claparede, a psychologist and pedagogue, who had been influenced by Binet, publishing also in l’Anneé Psychologique. In 1920 Piaget went to Théodore Simon, Binet’s collaborator on the intelligence tests, at the laboratory which Binet had founded. Simon asked Piaget to standardize Cyril Burt’s reasoning tests for Parisian children. Piaget seemingly found the question of intelligence interesting, but the way how Binet, Simon and Burt approached the question not to his liking. For Piaget (corresponding in this to Binet II and not Binet I), children think and perceive fundamentally different from adults.67 Nevertheless, Piaget keeps Binet’s stages (adapting them a bit) and the teleological assumption : logical reasoning (as we understand it from current scientific knowledge today) is the goal of all education. Adapting human thought in terms of logical reasoning is perfecting it to an ideal. Piaget, when he went back to Geneva, started to experiment with children. He did his experiments with Swiss children, “taken from the better schools in Geneva” (Piaget 1972 ; 2008, p. 43). One of his central assumptions was that the development of intelligence would be the same for all children in all cultures.

84Only in 1971/72, at the year of his retirement, Piaget started to have doubts, especially about the 11-15 year olds and their development in his conceptual terms : “However, recent research has shown that subjects from other types of schools or different social environments sometimes give results differing more or less from the norms indicated ; for the same experiments it is as though these subjects had stayed on the concrete operatory level of thinking.” (Piaget 1972 ; 2008, p. 43) This is exactly, what Binet had found for the “average limit of intelligence of adults, when these adults are normal and members of the working class. From the standpoint of abstract comprehension, they do not perform beyond the twelve-year level” (Binet 1911 ; 1975, p. 101). Unfortunately, seemingly nobody of Piaget’s successors continued the question, except for Bruner.

  • 68  See Siemsen & Siemsen (2009).
  • 69  Kurki-Suonio (2009) provides also an example : “On a first year mechanics course the behaviour of (...)

85Kaarle Kurki-Suonio, a contemporary didactical physicist and Machian68 writes on this question : “Nature, on her own initiative, does not tell anything or is talking nonsense. I think the core message is that conscious active attitude is required to perceive any message in the noise She is making. Even the primary sensual perception requires an active contribution of the conscious mind. This is the unifying dualism of empiry and theory in statu nascendi of concept formation. But, in order to get further, it is not sufficient to pose questions. Nature must be forced to answer. Before any questions can be formulated, a subject is needed. We have to perceive in the chaos of observable nature something which we can identify as separate "pure" phenomena. It will then be possible to pose questions about the identified phenomena. They are made in form of controlled experiments on specific aspects of the phenomena. Compelling Nature to answer means careful design of the experiment in order not to let her do anything but to realise this phenomenon.” (Kaarle Kurki-Suonio 2009).69

  • 70  Now one can better understand Binet’s comment on Mach’s ideas from before. It is Binet’s self-crit (...)

86Concerning the second question, one has to consider Binet’s epistemological ideas and the development of these ideas. Although Binet’s central concept of intelligence and the development of intelligence do not directly correspond to Mach’s concepts, there are major similarities. Binet seems to have found certain empirical results, the interpretation of which requires bold syntheses. He seemingly did not have enough time to “mentally digest” the results.70 At the time of turning towards education, Binet knew Mach’s point of view from the exchange around the article. But this was probably too late so that he was unable to “engrain” Mach’s epistemology in his scientific intuition. As Larguier indirectly stated, Binet did not did not live long enough to think Mach’s point of view through to the end. Piaget fortunately picked up Binet’s work, but with it also its epistemological inconsistencies, such as the age-dependent “stages” or the adult (logic, culturally one-sided adult experience as the main point of view) position in observing (which was then successfully criticized by Bruner and Freudenthal). But Piaget already noticed the language-dependency of Binet’s point of view, which he tried to reduce, although not totally eliminate, as Freudenthal noted (Freudenthal 1983). Seen from this perspective, Piaget’s major problem was that he seemingly did not know about the Binet-Mach exchange of ideas. Otherwise he might have looked into these origins of his own ideas more closely. But then he by-and-large abstracted from Binet’s influence on him in the first place, as already others (for instance Smith 1994) have elaborated in detail. Piaget thereby overlooked one of the first principles of Mach’s historio-critical approach : abstracting from one’s intellectual origins will make one blind to the epistemological problems and limitations (i.e. one-sidedness) of one’s own assumptions and method.

  • 71  Larguier’s observation of Binet’s bias towards a medical definition of the divergence from the “no (...)

87In their view on pedagogy, Binet and Mach are in some aspects much closer than in l’Âme et le Corps. This closeness is mainly found in the research questions and the empirical observations. It is often not found in the middle level of the theoretical focus and explanation. Binet’s view on pedagogy is strongly influenced by his research habits, such as a focus towards the methodology of learning from “illnesses”, as in pathological psychology. Binet himself sees pedagogy like medicine (p. 41), requiring diagnosis and treatment (Larguier noticed this intuitive “bias” of Binet’s perspective relative to a Machian point of view).71 He therefore looks specifically for physically and mentally retarded children and for the intellectual laggards in the class. This point of view on the one hand focuses Binet’s attention, but on the other hand makes him overlook some general aspects and contradictory facts from other perspectives.

  • 72  On the relation between simplicity and economy of thought, see Mach (1883, p. 469).

88This Machian aspect of Binet has also been one of his main influences on his successors. Claparède credits Binet as the “idea giver” of simplicity as “simplicity characterizes the approach of Binet” (Claparède quoted after Ratcliff). The idea of “simplicity” in return influenced the method and thought of the whole school of pedagogy in Geneva. It was the major part of their international attractiveness and influence (Ratcliff 2006). One can see in this a specific interpretation of Mach’s famous “economy of thought” principle.72


89Alfred Binet certainly is a very fascinating researcher. He is so fascinating, because his work is so multi-facetted and still holds so many intuitive secrets, so many undeveloped ideas, which exist embryonically in his empirical work. The main problem is to differentiate between his ideas which are teleological (Binet I) and those which are not (Binet II). One cannot escape making this differentiation in order to cope with the inconsistencies of Binet during his search for truth. Unfortunately, his successors have not always been able to consistently make this distinction. Some of their results should therefore be re-evaluated after this synthetic historical work. Many more interesting ideas will probably come out of it (such as the application of his “mental orthopaedics”). As I have shown, the ideas of Mach are closely related to Binet II and could serve as a good guide in this approach.

  • 73  This position has been called “neutral monism”.
  • 74  This a priori categorized, specialist view is rampant in the positivist interpretation of empirici (...)
  • 75  The term “transdisciplinary“ has been coined by Piaget, maybe as a late effect of Binet’s approach
  • 76  For instance, the relation between Binet, Mach and Paul Carus, the publisher of both in the US wou (...)

90In principle, Binet started his natural science career with Charcot as a vitalist. Although he struggled with this view for a lifetime, he was never able to shrug-off some of the epistemological inconsistencies of his basic convictions. He certainly sympathized with Mach’s “third way”, which was neither vitalist, nor mechanist, neither idealist, nor materialist, neither dualistic, nor only psychological or physiological.73 It was a psychophysiophysical monism and it comprised the views of physics, physiology, psychology and philosophy of science. This was the monistic unity that Binet was always striving for throughout his life, but which until the end eluded him. Larguier tried to continue working on this epistemological question after Binet’s death and he was looking into Mach’s direction for it. As he has been such a close friend of Binet, this direction was certainly in Binet’s spirit, but at the time he found it, it was already too late for this fundamental work to take effect on Binet’s other successors.
Because Binet had a much broader perspective than most researchers nowadays, he already made syntheses of ideas and areas, which now are completely split, because of the compartmentalized view of science.74 Especially in his pedagogy, he laid a theoretical foundation on which other people, such as Piaget built his empirical observations and ideas. His ideas still serve as a basis for identifying inconsistencies between different scientific disciplines and provide new transdisciplinary75 syntheses.76

  • 77  See for instance Ash (1995).
  • 78  Nevertheless, Claparède took over idea of simplicity from Binet, although the origin of this canno (...)

91How would Mach evaluate Binet ? There is no direct historical hint on this question, but maybe an indirect one : Mach promoted as his “successor” von Ehrenfels to a position at the University in Graz, a former university of his. Why did he choose von Ehrenfels and not somebody else, maybe even Binet ? Von Ehrenfels had written the article on Gestalt psychology, which later became the foundational article for whole discipline of psychology. Von Ehrenfels himself did not continue in this direction after his article, but the idea was kept alive and served as the basis of thought for Meinong, Ch. Bühler, Wertheimer, Köhler or Kaila.77 Thereby, Mach’s idea prospered, but seemingly had little direct influence in France and on the students of Binet. Claparède clearly continued into genetic psychology, but assuming a linear thought process, not a gestalt (cyclical, non-teleological) one.78 Maybe this was the central idea, which was missing in Binet’s philosophy from Mach’s perspective and which still has not been integrated yet (for instance into Piaget’s ideas). These ideas have continued to be influential (and successful) in Finland (see Siemsen & Siemsen 2008) through Eino Kaila, Rolf Nevanlinna and their successors, such as Kurki-Suonio. It would be very interesting to try a new synthesis of them.

92Therefore, the research into the details of this question will hopefully help to restate Binet’s importance, to show the significance of his ideas for today’s psychology and pedagogy. In a typically Machian way, I tried to go back to the status nascendi of some intuitively accepted ideas on which scientific fields such as cognitive psychology, constructivism, evolutionary epistemology or even neuropsychology are building on. Unfortunately, because it is intuitive, the epistemological roots and assumptions are mostly hidden and according to Mach, we have to completely dig some of them out in order to prevent them from sprouting and spreading metaphysical spores again and again. It is now up to each field to see, how much from the different assumptions it has intuitively inherited and how the epistemological overhaul of their fields shall look like (or to find other views, which can consistently describe the facts and phenomena mentioned). The necessity of this overhaul I hope became clear. Mach’s epistemology is a possible blueprint to which Binet was not properly updated as necessary. The article in l’Anneé Psychologique did not have the influence expected by Binet. The differences between Binet and Mach were not put into a fruitful synthesis. The gap between Mach and Binet was too large to be immediately brought into consistency.

93Did Binet I notice the epistemological inconsistencies to Binet II ? Probably yes, because Binet, shortly before his death developed a method of education, which in its empirical results runs contrary to his first epistemology. He seems to develop it nearly as an alternative to his intelligence scales and their philosophy. Even Piaget as his most talented intellectual heir did not attempt such a radical epistemological break as Binet. But this might also have been the idea, in which Binet still today is unsurpassed in his pedagogical method. Binet himself was all too aware of these limitations. Therefore he concluded his book on pedagogy, which became his scientific testament with a humble metaphor as a guide for further inquiry : “The old science of education is like an old-fashioned carriage : it squeaks but it can still serve a turn […] [Modern educational science] looks like a precision-made machine, but the parts do not hold together and it has one defect : it does not work.” (p. 232)

For the intensive cooperation and help in the research, I wish to thank the Binet Archive, especially Bernard Andrieu, Alexandre Klein as well as the Poincaré Archive, especially Gerhard Heinzmann. Furthermore, I would like to thank Marc Ratcliff from the Piaget Archive in Geneva and Bernardino Fantini for valuable information in the research. I whish to give special thanks for the permission to publish the letters from Binet to Mach to the Ernst Mach Archive, Munich, Germany and the letters from Binet to Paul Carus to the Carus Archive (Hegeler Foundation). Also I would like to thank the Mach and the Carus Archive for their invaluable help in researching the letters and their contexts. Also I would like to thank Karl Hayo Siemsen for his invaluable comments and proof reading.

Haut de page


Andrieu, B. : 2003 Le laboratiore du cerveau psychologique – Histoire et modèles, Paris : CNRS Éditions.

Ash, M. G. : 1995, Gestalt Psychology in German Culture 1890-1967 – Holism and the Quest for Objectivity, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Bergson, H. : 1896 ; 1911 ; 1929, Matter and Memory, London : Allen & Unwin.

Bergson, H. : 1907 ; 1911 ; 1998, Creative Evolution, Mineola : Dover.

Bergson, H. : 1911 ; 1985, Über den Pragmatismus von William James – Wahrheit und Wirklichkeit, in Denken und Schöpferisches Werden, Frankfurt a.M. : Syndikat.

Beth, E.W. & Piaget, J. : 1966, Mathematical Epistemology and Psychology, Reidel : Dordrecht.

Binet, A. : 1889, Sensation and the Outer World, The Open Court, 3, 83 ; APS Online pg. IIA.

Binet, A. : 1894, The Psychic Life of Micro-Organisms, Chicago : The Open Court.

Binet, A. : 1890, The Nervous Ganglia of Insects, The Monist, Oct. 1892, 3/1 ; APS Online p. 34A.

Binet, A. : 1903, L’étude expérimentale de l’intelligence,

Binet, A. : 1908, l’Âme et le Corps, Paris : Flammarion.

Binet, A. : 1911 ; 1984 Modern Ideas about Children, Albi : Suzanne Heisler 1975

Binet, A. : 1996, La Perception extérieure, text inédit, Andrieu, B. (ed.), Mont-de-Marsan : Editions InterUniversitaires.

Boring, E.G. : 1950 ; 1957, A History of Experimental Psychology, Englewood Cliffs : Prentice-Hall.

Bruner, J.S., Olver, R.R., Greenfield, P.M., et al. : 1966 ; 1967, Studies in Cognitive Growth – A Collaboration at the Center for Cognitive Studies, New York : Wiley & Sons.

Damasio, A. : 2003, Looking for Spinoza, Orlando : Harcourt.

Freudenthal, H. : 1983, Didactical Phenomenology of Mathematical Structures, Reidel, Dordrecht.

Galton, F. : 1883, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, New York : MacMillan.

Hadamard, J. : 1945 ; 1954, The psychology of invention in the mathematical field, New York : Dover.

Haller, R. & Stadler, F. : 1988, Ernst Mach Werk und Wirkung, Wien : Hölder, Pichler, Tempski.

Hayek, F. 1975, Die Irrtümer des Konstruktivismus und die Grundlagen legitimer Kritik gesellschaftlicher Gebilde, Tübingen : Mohr.

Hohenester, A. : 1988, Ernst Mach als Didaktiker, Lehrbuch- und Lehrplanverfasser, in Haller, R. & Stadler, F. (eds.), Ernst Mach Werk und Wirkung, Wien : Hölder, Pichler, Tempski.

Kaila, E. : 1930, Der logistische Neupositivismus – Eine kritische Studie, Turku : Annales Universitatis Abonenis, Series B, XIII.

Klein, A. : 2008, Correspondance d’Alfred Binet – Jean Larguier des Bancels, Presses Universitaires de Nancy : Nancy.

Koselleck, R. : 2003, Zeitschichten : Studien zur Historik, Frankfurt a. M. : Suhrkamp.

Kurki-Suonio, K. : 2009, presentation at the Helsinki University graduate school of science education, June 2008, publication forthcoming.

Larguier des Bancels, J. : 1921, Introduction a la psychologie – L’instinct et l’émotion, Paris : Payot.

Lloyd, G. & Sivin, N. : 2002, The Way and the Word – Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece, New Haven : Yale University Press.

Lorenz, K. : 1959 ;1968, ‘Gestaltwahrnehmung als Quelle wissenschaftlicher Erkenntnis’. In : Vom Weltbild des Verhaltensforschers, dtv, München 1968.

Lowie, R.H. : 1947, ‘Letters from Ernst Mach to Robert H. Lowie’, Isis, vol. 37, ½ (May 1947), pp. 65-68.

Mach, E. : 1883 ;1933 ;1976, Die Mechanik – historisch-kritisch dargestellt, reprint of the 9th edition, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt.

Mach, E. : 1886 ; 1919, Die Analyse der Empfindungen und das Verhältnis vom Physischen zum Psychischen, Gustav Fischer, Jena.

Mach, E. : 1890, ’Über das psychologische und logische Moment im Naturwissenschaftlichen Unterricht’. In : Zeitschrift für den physikalischen und chemischen Unterricht 4 : 1, October 1890, 1-5.

Mach, E. : 1900, ‘The Concept’. In : The Open Court Jun 1900, 14, p. 529.

Mach, E.: 1905;1926;2002, Erkenntnis und Irrtum: Skizzen zur Psychologie der Forschung, 5th Edition, Leipzig, reprint by rePRINT Berlin, Düsseldorf.

Mach, E. : 1906, ‘Sur le rapport de la physique avec la psychologie’, L’Année Psychologique, vol. 12 : 303-318.

Mach, E. : 1908, ‘Accident the Mother of Invention’, Chicago Daily Tribune, Jun. 7/1908, p. G5.

Mach, E.: 1909, ‘Erinnerungen an Darwin und die Entwicklungslehre’, in: Neue Freie Presse, 16/109, Morgenblatt, 27/06/1909.

Mach, E.: 1913;1991, ‘Selbstbiographie’. In Hoffmann, D. & Laitko, H. (eds.), Ernst Mach – Studien und Dokumente zu Leben und Werk, Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.

Mach, E.: 1915, Kultur und Mechanik, von W. Spemann, Stuttgart.

Mach, E.: 1920, letters to Gabriele Rabel, in Rabel, G.: Mach und die „Realität der Außenwelt“, Physikalische Zeitschrift, XXI, p. 433-437.

Mach, E.: 1923;1987, Populärwissenschaftliche Vorlesungen, Böhlau, Wien.

(The quoted articles are not included in the English edition of the Popular Science Lectures, which contains 15+2 articles, while the 5th German edition contained 33.)

Piaget, J.: 1978;1980, Das Weltbild des Kindes, Ullstein, Stuttgart.

Piaget, J, & Garcia R. : 1983 ; 1989, Psychogenesis and the History of Science, New York : Columbia University Press.

Poincaré, H. : 1908 ; 2003, Science and Method, New York : Dover Publications.

Ratcliff, Marc J. : 2006, « L’école de Genève ou le laboratoire de la simplicité », in Ratcliff, Marc J. and Martine Ruchat (éds), Les laboratoires de l’esprit : Une histoire de la psychologie à Genève (1892-1965), Genève, Musée d’Histoire des Sciences, pp. 137-157.

Ribot, Th. : 1889, Psychology de l’attention, Paris : Alcan.

Ribot, Th. : 1899, The Evolution of General Ideas, Open Court : Chicago.

Sarason, S.B. : 1976, The Unfortunate Fate of Alfred Binet and School Psychology, Teacher’s College Record, May 1976, Vol 77/4, p. 579-592.

Siegler, R.S. : 1992, ‘The Other Alfred Binet’, Developmental Psychology, vol. 28/2 : 179-190.

Siemsen, K.H. (1981) Genetisch-adaptiv aufgebauter rechnergestützter Kleingruppenunterricht: Begründungen für einen genetischen UnterrichtU. Frankfurt am Main and Bern: Peter D. Lang.

Siemsen, K.H. and Siemsen, H. (2009) ‘Resettling the Thoughts of Ernst Mach and the Vienna Circle to Europe – The cases of Finland and Germany’, Science & Education 18 (3) : 299-323.

Siemsen, H. : 2010a, ’Die psychophysiologische Fundierung des Analogiebegriffs bei Ernst Mach’, forthcoming in : Hentschel, K. (ed.), Analogien in Naturwissenschaften, Medizin und Technik, Acta Historica Leopoldina.

Siemsen, H. : 2010b, ‘Intuition in the Scientific Process and the Intuitive “Error“ of Science’, in Columbus, F. (ed.), The Psychology of Intuition, Hauppauge : Nova Science, forthcoming.

Smith, L. : 1994, ‘The Binet-Piaget Connection : Have developmentalists missed the epistemological point ?’, Archives de Psychologie : 62, p. 275-285.

Swoboda, W. : 1973, The Thought and Work of the Young Ernst Mach and the Antecedents to Positivism in Central Europe, dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

Stocking, G.W. Jr. : 1968 ; 1982, Race, Culture and Evolution – Essays in the History of Anthropology, Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Thiele, J. : 1969, Die Geschichte und die Wurzel des Satzes von der Erhaltung der Arbeit, Zur Geschichte des Arbeitsbegriffes, Kultur und Mechanik, E.J. Bonset, Amsterdam.

Thiele, J. : 1978, Wissenschaftliche Kommunikation. Die Korrespondenz Ernst Machs, Henn, Kastellaun.

Wertheimer, M. : 1924 ; 1938, ‘Gestalt Theory’. In : W.D. Ellis (ed.) A Source Book of Gestalt Psychology, Kegan, Trench, Trubner & Co, London, p. 1-11.

Zazzo, R. : 1993, Alfred Binet, Prospects : the quarterly review of comparative education, vol. XXIII, ½, p. 101-112, Paris : Unesco, International Bureau of Education., accessed 26/11/2008.

Mach Archive :

Letters Binet-Mach NL 174/0726 – NL 174/0731

Letters Larguier des Bancels NL 174/1905 – NL 174/1907

Haut de page


1  Binet worked for several years as assistant for Charcot at the Salpetriere and later wrote his dissertation on the nervous system of insects.

2  “[…] a slightly adventurous course in the area of metaphysics.” (Binet 1906).

3  The German version was posthumously published in Mach (1923).

4  “Zeitschichten” as the philosopher of history Koselleck (2003) called them.

5  These were : l’Anneé Psychologique 1905 (uncut) ; Les altérations de la personnalité, 2nd ed. ; l’Âme et le Corps 1905 ; Psychologie des grands calculateurs et jouers d’échecs, 1894 ; La psychologie du raisonnement, 1886 ; L’oevres d’Alfred Binet by Larguier des Bancels, J. ; The Monist ; The Open Court.

6  Mach had sent his “Erhaltung der Arbeit” to Bergson. Bergson replied on the 3rd of September 1909, thanked Mach, conferred his “admiration sympatique” for all of Mach’s work and stated that, although their subjects were different, they used the “same method” and he arrived to conclusions totally “conciliables” with Mach’s. See a letter from Bergson to Mach published in Thiele (1969).

7  It would be interesting to know, who these “colleagues at the Sorbonne” exactly comprised.

8  This highlights an interesting difference between French and German (or Austrian/Czech) culture.

9  Larguier was Secrétaire of l’Année Psychologique, philosopher and a very close friend to Binet. See Klein (2008).

10  Among them was quite certainly the “Analysis of Sensations”.

11  Because Mach has a very precise and at the same time often unusual use of concepts it is very difficult to translate his work. Some of the translations of Mach’s works, such as the French translation of “Knowledge and Error” clearly show these difficulties. But then, also Binet’s “Modern Ideas about Children” is barely recognizable in its German translation (“Die neuen Gedanken über das Schulkind”). Larguier’s translation for l’Année was much better though.

12  Binet probably knew Mach’s writings from Carus’ magazines The Monist and The Open Court, because Binet himself had published in them several times and had a cooperation agreement between Carus and his l’Anneé Psychologique (see letters in the Paul Carus archive in Bloomingdale, IL, USA to be published in …).

13  One has to keep in mind that this is at least the second time Binet reads about these ideas as he first read them from Stallo (see below).

14  There are of course many more origins and probably several others can be found to be joint. Nevertheless for the purpose of this article and the later conceptual analysis, I will focus on only two and as more on Stallo, as he is probably much more unknown in the area of psychology.

15  Further influences of Ribot’s work on Binet will be found in the examples on pedagogy (see below).

16  Stallo was born in Oldenburg (Germany) and emigrated to the US. After his retirement he lived in Italy.

17  Paul Carus was editor of “The Monist” and “The Open Court”, the journals in which Mach and Binet published several articles. The English version of Binet’s article was published in “The Open Court”.

18  See Mach in Stallo (1901).

19  Larguier (1921, p. 80) actually argued that the “contemporary monists”, borrowed their “formula of monism” from Leibnitz or Spinoza. “One of the most famous is the one that Fechner has vulgarized”.

20  A detailed comparison of the genesis and interrelations of these approaches will still need further research.

21  The concept of “thing” is used here seemingly as synonymous to “object”.

22  The author has taken the liberty to adapt the sentence slightly in the translation in order to make it more accessible. This was done in the hope that Mach’s sometimes extremely precise concepts have not been changed too much in the process.

23  For detailed examples, see the works of Jakob von Uexküll, of whom Mach in this respect was an admirer as he wrote in a letter to Haeckel (Thiele 1978).

24  The clarity of my vision is better with the left eye ; while the receptiveness for spectral colours is much more pronounced for my right eye.

25  Binet published in them nearly 20 times and Mach nearly 40 times. Additionally Carus published their books in English as well as the books of Ribot.

26  He is very obviously so in L’Evolution Creatrice.

27  Mach calls “the border U” what Bergson names the “office of the body”. In naïve psychology, we usually tend to equate this border with the “border of the body”, but on close inspection, in many psychical phenomena this border does not coincide with the border of the skin.

28  These are hen-egg problems, which are like trying to draw a triangle in one dimension.

29  For this, Bergson distinguishes between centrifugal and centripetal nerves, a concept Binet adopts in his l’Âme et le Corps. But for Mach, Bergson’s strict distinction between the brain and the nervous system does not hold, as in Mach’s experiments, nerves can have an interpretative function (Mach 1886) and the brain can perceive itself. This would also be an original result of Binet’s work on the nervous system of insects (1890), otherwise his very general concept of intelligence would not be possible. Therefore it is strange, that Binet in l’Âme et le Corps did not attack Bergson on Binet’s “own turf”, where his attack would have been much more consistent. Mach’s argument is not very far away from Binet’s line of research.

30  Mind and Matter was in his library and Creative Evolution is mentioned in his notebooks (in 1908, see Haller & Stadler 1988, p. 207). Maybe it is not by chance that Mach speculated about plants and “organs of thought”. From which origins did the brain evolve ? The question is basically the same as Binet had stated for his concept of intelligence in his dissertation.

31  While Bergson can be said to take an aloft philosophical meta-perspective, Mach and Binet believe that one cannot find out more about this problem, without “making their hands dirty” in the details of psychological, physiological and (for Mach) physical experimentation. Mach and Binet certainly put much more emphasis on experimentation and have much more direct experience with the role of experimentation in research than Bergson. From a cognitive point of view, this difference in approach is not unimportant. The difference is that in experimentation, one gains haptical, motorical and enactive experiences, which the other approach is lacking. It is interesting that Bergson as the philosopher of “action” seems to have overlooked this point. His concept of action serves as a “black box” for the haptical, motorical and enactive experiences, without really trying to understand them, the same as his “intuition” abstracts from the relation between the instinctive, gestaltist and conscious reflection. Thereby he abstracts from the actual genesis process.

32  One should note here, that gestalt psychology (by von Ehrenfels, Wertheimer, Köhler, Karl and Charlotte Bühler) is largely based on ideas of Mach, specifically certain chapters of the “Analysis of Sensations” (see for instance Ash 1995).

33  This is a conceptual development from Binet’s concept of “corps” in l’Âme et le Corps.

34  Larguier adds in a footnote that “this continued to receive different names : sensations, ideas, representations, elements (Mach), images (Bergson), matter [matière] (Binet)”, thereby showing Berkeleyan roots and different perspectives in all of them.

35  Consciously, Piaget had explicitly rejected Mach’s ideas.

36  The references of this part are all taken from Binet’s (1911) pedagogical book “Modern Ideas about Children” unless stated otherwise.

37  In the following, in cases where these philosophies are not concerned or are not discernable, no discernment will be used.

38  In the following many obvious examples of this will be provided, but first the methodology of dealing with them needs to be resolved.

39  Mach and Binet strongly base their views on an evolutionary point of view and both are strongly influenced in this by Spencer (see Binet p. 117 or 180, Mach 1909). Nevertheless, they take two different approaches from Spencer : Binet’s evolutionism is still teleological, i.e. his version of evolution does not account for the evolution of evolution, which was a central difference between Darwin and Spencer and one of Mach’s criticisms of the vitalist perspective. Mach only uses the non-teleological part of Spencer (in Mach’s view the non-metaphysical).

40  In the following, I will use mainly quotations from Boas in order to show his genetic line of thought. His explications are rather clear, also in their relation to Binet’s different ideas, so I do not see much need for further comments.

41  Binet by the way had read Boas and quotes him in his “Modern Ideas” (p. 50), but only refers to his (early) educational works.

42  While Franz Boas was president of the New York Academy of Science, he awarded an honorary membership first to Galton (1910) and in the year after to Mach (1911), see Lowie (1947).

43  Actually, even Binet’s own concept of intelligence shifts (see Siegler 1992).

44  At the time he is obviously still lacking a constructive solution (not an intuitive one as he had found it in his mental orthopaedics), like in the case of the soldiers, who would not dare to make an “error” in a test in the presence of their superiors. The difference is that in the case of the worker’s children, the solution lies in rephrasing the problem – through his mental orthopaedics. He unfortunately did not long enough to put this intuition consistently into a constructive context.

45  One could argue that Binet derived his idea of “mental orthopaedics” from the US-American “learning by doing”. This is certainly partly true. Nevertheless, he enculturates the idea and substantially changes it by doing so. For example there is a major theoretical difference to US between “free action” (p. 116) and controlled action (mental orthopaedics). In Binet’s mental orthopaedics, the first goal is to learn to control attention (will, judgement, etc.). For this goal an “active method” is not sufficient.

46  For the similarity of these ideas to the sensualistic part of Mach’s pedagogical ideas, see Hohenester (1988) or Mach (1886 reprint in 1923).

47  This is in principle the same Hobbesian idea that Galton had. That this deduction is not logically necessary, we will see below. What is interesting here is that from a similar empirical background, different ideas (Binet, the Bühlers, Kaila) were developed, which were (and still are) influential for a long time. They were kept in spite of new counterfactual empirical evidence (see Poincaré).

48  Boring also describes the influences of Mach’s epistemology on the Würzburg school. While Külpe was heavily influenced (in his intuitions) by Avenarius, Marbe by and large misunderstood Mach (see also Mach 1920).

49  The details of this research can be found in Siemsen & Siemsen (2009).

50  I will here mostly refer to the empirical concept of the unconscious and subconscious as elaborated by Münsterberg et al. 1910, which is close to the concepts of Ribot and Janet as participants in this elaboration. It is based on Mach’s epistemology and explicitly not using Freud’s or Jung’s more theoretical concept of the unconscious. See also Siemsen (2010b).

51  One can observe here the “modernity” of Binet in terms of current issues in the educational debate. What he promotes here is very close to inquiry learning approaches. This might be because of Binet’s closeness to Dewey on the question of activity. But there are also important differences : Binet’s mental orthopaedics are much more focussed on attention and sensualism in this “activity” and in this he is closer to the current Finnish approach than the US-American one See Siemsen & Siemsen (2009). For a study on the empirical results of this difference, see K.H. Siemsen (1981).

52  What is special to this metaphor is that it hints at an interesting conceptual development : On the one hand, the “conscious construction” is clearly an idea of enlightenment (Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau) and therefore directed against the Hobbesian idea of an omniscient monarch. On the other hand, this omniscient monarch metaphor appears again in the interpretation of the role of individual consciousness. No democracy in the brain, so to speak. The problem of where the assumed “omniscience” of the monarch comes from in the first place thereby remains unresolved. It is like “god’s thoughts”. But what if the monarch errs ? Where does such an error come from ? Also from the “antechamber” ? Already one of the children of enlightenment, W.E. Gladstone felt uncomfortable with this inherently authoritarian notion of construction, especially when it is generalized to a larger social context (see Hayek 1975).

53  Quoted after translations from Hadamard (1945).

54  Piaget’s ideas in this direction will be discussed below.

55  Maybe because he is more empirical as a physicist.

56  This idea leads to very interesting conclusions, which shall not be further elaborated here, but which can be found in Hadamard (1945) and Siemsen (2010b).

57  So both, Binet and Claparéde are stuck at the point of realizing the empirical futility of Bergson’s “données immédiates de la conscience”. Piaget adds apologetically that “For that matter every division into “conscious” and “unconscious” in the process of mathematical invention remains relative to the defects of our introspection.” One should add here that according to Mach, all observations remain relative to the limitations of our method of observation, regardless of which one we use. This methodological problem should not deter us from trying to integrate the results of observations from different methods. Lacking this insight was also a main problem of behaviourism. It can still be considered a problem in cognitivism (see Siemsen 2010b).

58  This does not imply that they are arbitrary as the number of consistent description for a large number of facts is certainly very limited. Nevertheless, the current one can never be assumed the only one, as this would introduce an artificial “ignorabimus” as Mach had criticized du Bois-Reymond for. Future generations might be more knowledgeable in ways we cannot imagine today (see Mach 1920).

59  For Mach the age of 16 is about as far as we can remember our consciousness back into our youth. Therefore, before that, consciousness must probably have been different. “Awakening in our youth to full consciousness, we find ourselves in possession of the notion of a space encompassing and surrounding our body, in which space move various bodies, partly altering and partly retaining their space and shape. It is impossible for us to ascertain how this notion has been begotten.” (Mach 1905) So the “early consciousness” shapes what our adult consciousness regards as “immediately given”.

60  Therefore, some of Darwin’s successors, such as Galton and even Darwin himself partly still continued to hold remnants of this view.

61  One can see here the similarities to Binet’s critical study of the self-fulfilling introspections of verbally oriented philosophical thought.

62  Judging from criticisms of school textbooks, etc. this is not a rare, but a common event, which can best be shown in mathematics and physics, but also happens in many other subjects, where this can be observed less easily.

63  As one can see here, Binet is already using Piaget’s famous concepts of adaptation and assimilation, similar to Mach.

64  As Mach had shown in his mechanics, this view is inherent in Newton, which led to Mach’s famous criticism of Newton for which all founders of the “new physics” (such as Einstein, Planck or Pauli) credited Mach for as an important idea which helped in leading to their new results.

65  The recent works of Lloyd & Sivin (2002) have attempted this and instead of universality found “cultural manifolds”.

66  Unless one assumes either some timeless god’s to have known it before humans or define logic as a very general and culturally independent function of human thought, such as Mach’s “adaptation of thoughts to each other” (Mach 1905).

67  For details on this and intelligence measurement related issues, see also (accessed 26/11/2008).

68  See Siemsen & Siemsen (2009).

69  Kurki-Suonio (2009) provides also an example : “On a first year mechanics course the behaviour of rolling bodies was investigated. […] A body rolling down an inclined track happened to fall aside and the experiment had to be repeated a few times. A young lady, sitting leftmost on the first row, then exclaimed : "So, that’s how physics works. You repeat the experiment until you get the desired result." "Yes, you are right", I replied. "In an experiment we ask Nature to realize that very phenomenon we wish to study, and we repeat the experiment until She does." But you are also wrong, since, when She obeys, we accept her answer to our question about the phenomenon."”

70  Now one can better understand Binet’s comment on Mach’s ideas from before. It is Binet’s self-critical analysis of their different scientific characters : “I can see, with how much wisdom and care you have founded your system, that all known is sensual perception. If you look into my last book, you can see that your point of arrival is my point of departure for a slightly adventurous course in the area of metaphysics.”

71  Larguier’s observation of Binet’s bias towards a medical definition of the divergence from the “norm” is not absolute, but relative. It is actually one of Binet’s empirical strengths that he combines different methods even if he prefers some to the other methods.

72  On the relation between simplicity and economy of thought, see Mach (1883, p. 469).

73  This position has been called “neutral monism”.

74  This a priori categorized, specialist view is rampant in the positivist interpretation of empiricism, probably because it can be found already very early in positivism with Comte. Others, such as Ostwald took over this view intuitively, without reflecting on its necessity and epistemological basis. Just because empiricism and specialization are often used together in science, it does not mean that epistemologically they belong to each other. Binet certainly had a contrary attitude and is thereby a living example of how fruitful an empirical, non-specialist attitude can be in research.

75  The term “transdisciplinary“ has been coined by Piaget, maybe as a late effect of Binet’s approach.

76  For instance, the relation between Binet, Mach and Paul Carus, the publisher of both in the US would be interesting to research. There have been for instance early mentions of Mach and Binet in an article from Carus, which could not be included into this article anymore.

77  See for instance Ash (1995).

78  Nevertheless, Claparède took over idea of simplicity from Binet, although the origin of this cannot currently be ascertained.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Recherches & Educations, n° 3 Santé et Education, p. 351-403

Référence électronique

Hayo Siemsen, « Alfred Binet – Ernst Mach: Similarities, Differences and Influences », Recherches & éducations [En ligne], 3 | septembre 2010, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2012, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Hayo Siemsen

Ernst Mach Institute for Philosophy of Science, INK, FH, Emden/Leer (University of Applied Sciences)

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Propriété intellectuelle

Haut de page
  • Logo Société Binet-Simon