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(Radical) Constructivism – What Difference Does It Make?
Josef Mitterer A University of Klagenfurt (Austria) <firstname.lastname@example.org>
whether he wants to acknowledge it or not: 1 (Radical) Constructivism and (Critical) The Realist is in reality a Constructivist. Realism occupy different positions in the realm of epistemology. The differences are 5 Thus realism becomes a special case of constructivism, which tries to absolutize its considered so grave, that extensive discusown construction of reality by setting it sions hardly ever take place. equal with an independent reality. The difCritique is most often limited to standard ference between realism and constructivism phrases or simple devaluations stemming is reduced from an epistemological distincfrom ignorance. tion to merely a difference in (epistemologEverybody claims that his own opinions ical) attitude. But the idea that we all are are presented misleadingly and erroneously, Constructivists, whether we admit it or not, or even that he never held the opinions is based on certain biological, psychological accused of, such as denying reality here or or cultural presuppositions; and hence the naive realist views there. Constructivist has to face the same objec2 The main objection of the Realist is that tion of absolutization he raises against the the Constructivist cannot do without realist Realist. presuppositions. (Niklas Luhmann presents constructivism explicitly as a realist episte6 In their mutual critique, constructivism and realism presuppose each other their own mology). The Constructivist is in reality a respective positions. The Constructivist has Realist – at least when he tries to put his head his reality presupposed “realistically” by the through a wall he will have to admit it.1 Realist and the Realist gets reality constituted 3 The Constructivist criticizes above all in a constructivist manner by the Constructhe realist assumption of an, at least to some tivist. Both hold that the extent, cognizable reality. practice of science supOur conceptions and ports their respective descriptions of reality The difference between can only be compared to realism and constructivism side. The Realists say that scientists ultimately proother conceptions and is a difference in in a realist manner descriptions and not (epistemological) attitude ceed and Constructivists claim with reality itself. The that science is construccorrectness, let alone the tivist. Realist interpretations of the practice truth, of world views cannot be stated. A of science are as convincing as are construcworld beyond our senses and concepts is not tivist interpretations. cognizable. We all construct our own world Whether scientists see themselves as Real– but interdependently and in concordance ists or rather as Constructivists depends with others. above all on which philosophy (of science) is 4 In his critique the Constructivist univerin fashion. There is no indication that realistsalizes his own principles towards presuppooriented scientists are more successful than sitions valid for realists just the same. He constructivist scientists and it makes little cannot allow that the Realist perceives and difference for the results of our knowledgerecognizes the world “in fact” and therefore efforts whether they are interpreted as invenis a Realist in his own right. When the world tions or as discoveries. According to von Glais 100% the world of my experiences and my sersfeld it is only in the last century that “sciliving, when knowledge is no more than an entists have started to realize that their internal construction of the human subject, explanations of the world rest on concepts then this holds equally well for the Realist, shaped by the human observer and which he imprints onto his experiences”(Glasersfeld 1998, p 504) But already long before this insight scientists had been doing just what they have only now realized that they are doing. 7 Von Glasersfeld replaces truth/correctness with viability and falsehood/error with non-viability. (Sometimes expressions like “irrefutable” or “undeniable” serve the purpose.) Constructivist concepts, however, carry similar problems to those they aim to replace. Viable constructions cannot be matched positively with reality. Strangely enough, a direct contact, a direct confrontation with an “ontic reality” becomes feasible exactly then, when our (therefore?) non-viable constructions fail or collapse. Admittedly, the failure of our constructions allows for a merely negative determination of reality, some kind of “Not so!”: “Reality can only be described in terms of the actions and thoughts that have proven unsuccessful” (Glasersfeld 1996, p. 193). Von Glasersfeld says that “for the Constructivist it is completely irrelevant how the real really is” (Glasersfeld 1998, p. 324). But that reality is like a wheel which turns nothing may well hold only as long our constructions are viable and do not get eliminated through “natural selection.” 8 The inconsequence exactly then, when our constructions fail, indicates that constructivism has adopted the dualistic argumentation technique together with the presupposition of an at least negatively knowledge-relevant language-independent reality. But perhaps this inconsequence can be avoided? A radical constructivism could argue that our (theoretical) constructions can be checked neither positively nor negatively against reality. The sceptic’s argument, recalled so often, should not be restricted to views and ideas that are correct or viable.
Constructivist Foundations 2008, vol. 3, no. 3 http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/journal/
ries are declared a failure by other scientists. The Radical Constructivism of Ernst von Glasersfeld can be credited at least with not feeling comfortable at all with this mode of argumentation and he does struggle with the problem of how to get rid of a predominantly objectivist and realist terminology. option. seen or felt can be interpreted differently” – then again the question arises whether the same or different objects are interpreted differently and then. intolor. irritated when their theolawlessness. How often has the Theory of base it on the fallibility of the human mind. 3. false or erroneous from more stringent if it decides for the second the basis of an adopted follow-up theory. as the refuters insist. For examples. may sufﬁce to hint to the support of the Uni11 For a theory to fail or to be refuted means ﬁcation Church by realist-oriented thinkers simply that it runs counter to the theory such as Eccles. 510). that there are black holes. one doesn’t which decides on the viability of construcneed to go to the texts written in a realist jartions. Perhaps they would be more concise if gon by creationists such as Morris or Ross or they concede that here decisions are based on even those of revisionists and holocaust a theory of evolution mutated to a presuppodeniers such as Faurisson or Butz – perhaps it sition for these constructions. – all these condent reality” or some other instances that can structions have worked according to the be created through the realization and unibeliefs of their constructors or still continue versalization of theoretical constructs taken from biology or some other science. as von Glasersfeld bility of theoretical constructs. Often they respond to a refutais nature. subject-dependent worlds. rations as nazism” (GlaserThis may explain to some constructivist – are sfeld 1998. p. Many. if not most. p. which are only imperative as long as we make them… THE AUTHOR Josef Mitterer is an Austrian philosopher. There are hardly any theoretical constructs in sci13 I doubt that constructivists must be tolerant “for purely epistemological reasons.2 15 The conﬂict between a constructivist proliferation of worlds and a realist reduction towards the one (and “true”) reality needs to be decided according to preferences drawn from presuppositions. In Who determines whether constructions the rare case when they give up their theory are viable or not? Reality or a(nother) theory in favour of another. which forgoes the categorical distinction between language and reality and abandons truth as the traditional goal of our cognitive efforts. advocates of their 9 How is failure or refutation of theoretical theories argue for them until the end of their constructs determined? For the success of our life regardless of objections. The failure of points out. failed sists of quarks and other (smallest) particles or refuted. they declare the(ir) earabout reality? Constructivism would become lier theory as refuted. 510) is trivial in the case of different. comes along with a reference to an “indepenthat phlogiston exists. traditional truth-oriented thinkers sometimes claim. Bartley and Flew. This or simply of energy. false. as one can see one’s own” (Glasersfeld 1998. This is the option that is applied in scientiﬁc conﬂicts over the viability/non-via12 Realist. In two books. lives it…). that all cave paintings are fakes. In various sciences the strangest views are held or have been held: that the earth is ﬂat. neither are Creationists vice and intellectual modesty and von Glasersfeld versa. in the constructivist case. p.” ence – except those not known outside their (Critical) Realists and Rationalists claim holders – that have not been refuted by some the principle of tolerance for themselves and other theory. with or even in a big declined as true. This is sometimes not easy: “That others don’t have to see their world so. which states its failure and refutation. that the depending on whether they are held or universe was created by. And when “everything that can be said. because they have nothing posed to those constructhe realist just like the to put up against such abertions already having failed.Both modes of thinking – worlds “are dangerous. is reality responsible for their failtion of their own theory with a refutation of ure? the theory from which they were refuted. that matter is preferably dark and conin the realist case. But realist convictions all the same are 10 Constructivists often claim that “natural no safeguard against holding and justifying selection” or even “reality” is like a ﬁlter arbitrary views. that AIDS is (not) caused by viruses. no. The Beyond of Philosophy and The Escape from Arbitrariness he developed a non-dualizing philosophy. vol. has this theory actuerant and ignorant Constructivists just as ally been refuted. their refutation. reprovals. etc. But when the world is the same for someone else and for me and we “only” see it differently. then “seeing” loses its constructive moment. is always stated related modes of thought with relativistic from other theoretical positions and as long tendencies and multiple as these positions have not failed they are presup. erroneous or refuted. Karl extent why theoreticians manifestations of an are seldom impressed or argumentation technique Popper even insinuates that relativism leads to anarchy. Darwinists are not there are tolerant and open-minded Realists impressed and shaken by the refutations of (even though Popper only preached tolerance Creationists. bang. one to present any arbitrary opinion. and as (not-)viable. and tyranny (Popper 1982. 106). 2008. and constructions we are responsible ourselves – falsiﬁcations. Relativity been declared “refuted” or “failed” And why shouldn’t there be dogmatic. 3 161 .philosophical OPINION non-dualizing philosophy to do so. which of these interpretations are viable and which are not. 14 Both modes of thinking – the realist just like the constructivist – are manifestations of that humanity is not older than a few thouan argumentation technique which allows sand years. that constructivism and other theories.
This relation forms the dichotomic presupposition of realist and constructivist discourses and serves as the paradogma of dualist philosophy. Received: 26 May 2008 Accepted: 05 June 2008 162 Constructivist Foundations . Probleme. Schmidt. K. von (1996) Radikaler Konstruktivismus: Ideen. Terminological difficulties of constructivist theories are. Realism is another answer. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt. this is a translation from German of Mitterer (2001) (revised during translation). (2001) Der radikale Konstruktivismus. & Popper. I am more interested in the (re-)construction of this relation and hence do not participate in the discussions between the various versions of the dualist argumentation technique. pp. J. pp. Mitterer. von (1998) Die radikal-konstruktivistische Wissenstheorie. Ergebnisse. Fischer: Frankfurt. discussed by Schmidt (1998). J. ‘What difference does it make?’ In: Die Flucht aus der Beliebigkeit [The Escape from Arbitrariness]. In: Kreuzer. Glasersfeld. for example. 1. (1982) Duldsamkeit und intellektuelle Verantwortlichkeit. Ethik und Sozialwissenschaften 9 (4): 503–511. pp. Deuticke: Vienna. 567–568. E. S. The realist attempts often to refute the constructivist with the help of examples taken from “everyday-realism” – exactly that area for which many constructivists (but not von Glasersfeld) suspend their constructivism. (1998) Der nächste Schritt.philosophical OPINION non-dualizing philosophy Brief remark Constructivism is an answer to the question how language relates to reality. R.) Offene Gesellschaft – Offenes Universum. K. 2. But although I try to keep an equidistance my sympathies are rather on the constructivist side. References All translations from German are made by the author. 120–128. Notes Published for the ﬁrst time in English. Popper. Ethik und Sozialwissenschaften 9 (4): 567–569. Glasersfeld. (eds. E. F. 103–116.
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