I'm having trouble understanding the difference between symbols and abstract thinking in Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory. Piaget says that in the preoperational stage, children 2-7 years old can think of things in terms of symbols, and that abstract thinking forms in the formal operational stage. I thought symbols are a part of abstract thinking, perhaps because symbols, to me, seem abstract. So, what does the theory mean when it refers to "abstract thinking?" Can someone give me a concrete example delineating the difference between the abstract thinking and symbolism parts in their respective stages? Much thanks!


3 Answers 3


Symbolism uses a symbol to represent an existing object, while abstract thinking can be thought of as considering things that don't actually exist.

For a rough example of each, consider representation as symbolism (this paper is the plane I'm on) and consider generalization as abstraction (what it means to be "on" something). For another, consider something (this blue line on a paper) that represents something else (this river), contrasted with considering the concepts of "blue" or "line".


I believe that when Piagetian theory refers to abstract thinking in the formal operations stage it means abstraction of propositional form from propositional content, in the sense that the individual is capable of reasoning on the basis of the structure of propositions, regardless of the fact that he/she considers such propositions to be true or false. This is also called hypothetico-deductive reasoning. In previous developmental stages it is very difficult to persuade a child to deduce the consequences of a fact that he/she considers to be false. Abstraction in the general sense does occur in the course of all development, as illustrated by the concept of reflective abstraction. The specific difference in the formal operations stage concerns the dissociation of propositional structure from propositional content, as mentioned above.

For more detail on this I'd recommend Piaget & Inhelder's book the psychology of the child. For more specific detail concerning the formal operations stages there is Inhelder & Piaget's book The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence.


In plain English.

Piaget uses symbolism to mean the use of symbols as in words, objects, images, behaviors, mannerisms...things that tend to be concrete or can conjure concrete images in ones mind.

For example, think of the image of a gif of a man scratching his nose. That image is full of symbols. If you were to create a movie scene based on that info, I'd be easy to visualize it.

Piaget uses abstract thinking to describe the type of thinking that involves the manipulation of ideas, engages the imagination and makes creative thinking possible.

For example, if you're asked to start a discussion about constructing a theory on globalization or discuss the meaning of democracy or that of human rights... you'd engage in abstract thinking. These are ideas. Abstractions. At this stage a person can weave in and out of abstract ideas.

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    $\begingroup$ This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 5:24
  • $\begingroup$ It doesnt need a source because it is explaining what Piaget wrote. I'd say its the same source as the original poster. There's nothing new. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ @DenActivist It would be helpful to have a citation showing this is what Piaget actually said. $\endgroup$
    – Seanny123
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 16:34

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