What does the following sentence mean? “Piaget’s idea that individuals can be formal only in certain domains also shows that his epistemic, rational and nomothetic subject is not so opposed to a psychological, idiosyncratic subject as some of his critics have claimed.”

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What does the following sentence mean? “Piaget’s idea that individuals can be formal only in certain domains also shows that his epistemic, rational and nomothetic subject is not so opposed to a psychological, idiosyncratic subject as some of his critics have claimed.”

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It seems Piaget has a reputation for theorizing about human behavior as the result of rational, rule-based systems. The author claims that his ideas about when people can be formal, runs counter to this reputation. It’s difficult to assess that claim without substantially more context.

When dealing with a large sentence like this, find the main verb and then peel it apart from there.

In this case, the main verb is “shows that” (with an attached adverb, “also”). Something is doing the showing, and something is being shown. Specifically:

* Piaget’s idea that individuals can be formal only in certain domains
* also shows that
* his epistemic, rational and nomothetic subject is not so opposed to a psychological, idiosyncratic subject as some of his critics have claimed.

—-

Let’s start with the first half.

So we have an idea, attached to Piaget. That idea is described by a whole phrase itself – in this case, it’s a clause, which acts like its own mini-sentence:

* individuals
* can be
* formal only in certain domains

The last bit is the only bit that might be challenging here. “Formal” means “operating according to rules and symbols”; math and logic are *formal* subjects in this sense of the word. And “domain” means “a broad subject, topic, or set of circumstances”. So Piaget’s idea here is that people only use rules and symbols only in specific contexts, and not in others.

—–

And now we can get to the second part. This is also a clause, so we can break it down further. It turns out that even *that* broken down clause has its own clause inside it, so we can break that down, too:

* his epistemic, rational and nomothetic subject
* is not
* so opposed to a psychological, idiosyncratic subject
** as some of his critics
** have
** claimed

Let’s start at the top.

His [Piaget’s] “epistemic, rational, and nomothetic subject” is talking about a person (the “subject”, in this case, a person as someone viewing and interpreting the world). This person is, apparently, “epistemic” (concerned about the sources of knowledge), rational (you probably know this word), and “nomothetic” (I had to look this one up, it apparently [means](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomothetic#In_psychology) “applying general rules or principles, rather than dealing with specific cases”).

So we’ve got one notion of people as observers who generalize and reason. That idea is compared with the idea of a “psychological, idiosyncratic subject”. This “idiosyncratic” (dealing with each situation as its own thing) subject is, on the surface, different from the “nomothetic” subject in the previous paragraph (since a *nomothetic* subject *doesn’t* deal with each situation as its own thing).

Apparently, Piaget’s critics have pointed this out, and have said “wait a minute, Piaget, you have two different ideas here that seem contradictory”. But the author of your sentence thinks that they aren’t.

—–

Putting it all together:

* Piaget has a theory that people use rules.
* Piaget’s critics have attacked him for this, because it seems contradictory to how people handle individual situations individually.
* But because Piaget says they use rules *only in some circumstances* (and not others), there’s room for people to both use rules sometimes and not use rules at other times.
* So Piaget’s critics are claiming a contradiction that isn’t really there, or at least, your author thinks so.

IMO whoever wrote this is a terrible writer. There’s no reason that this couldn’t be written in an easier to digest way. This sentence is an absolute bear.