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Volume 2, Numbers 2–3 March 2007

ISSN 1782-348X
An interdisciplinary journal

Festschrift for
Ernst von Glasersfeld
celebrating his 90th birthday
Editors: Ranulph Glanville & Alexander Riegler
Advisory Board DESCRIPTION
William Clancey Constructivist Foundations (CF) is an independent academic peer-reviewed e-journal
NASA Ames Research Center, USA without commercial interests. Its aim is to promote scientific foundations and applications of
Ranulph Glanville constructivist sciences, to weed out pseudoscientific claims and to base constructivist
CybernEthics Research, UK sciences on sound scientific foundations, which do not equal the scientific method with
Ernst von Glasersfeld objectivist claims. The journal is concerned with the interdisciplinary study of all forms of
University of Massachusetts, USA constructivist sciences, especially radical constructivism, biology of cognition, cybersemiotics,
Vincent Kenny enactive cognitive science, epistemic structuring of experience, non-dualism, second order
Accademia Costruttivista di cybernetics, the theory of autopoietic systems, etc.
Terapia Sistemica, Italy
Klaus Krippendorff
University of Pennsylvania, USA
Humberto Maturana The basic motivation behind the journal is to make peer-reviewed constructivist papers
Institute Matríztica, Chile available to the academic audience free of charge. The constructive character of the
Josef Mitterer journal refers to the fact that the journal publishes actual work in constructivist sciences
University of Klagenfurt, Austria rather than work that argues for the importance or need for constructivism. The journal is
Karl Müller open to (provocative) new ideas that fall within the scope of constructivist approaches and
Wisdom, Austria encourages critical academic submissions to help sharpen the position of constructivist
Bernhard Pörksen sciences. The common denominator of constructivist approaches can be summarized as
University of Hamburg, Germany follows.
Gebhard Rusch • Constructivist approaches question the Cartesian separation between objective world
University of Siegen, Germany and subjective experience;
Siegfried J. Schmidt • Consequently, they demand the inclusion of the observer in scientific explanations;
University of Münster, Germany • Representationalism is rejected; knowledge is a system-related cognitive process rather
Bernard Scott than a mapping of an objective world onto subjective cognitive structures;
Cranfield University, UK • According to constructivist approaches, it is futile to claim that knowledge approaches
Sverre Sjölander reality; reality is brought forth by the subject rather than passively received;
Linköping University, Sweden • Constructivist approaches entertain an agnostic relationship with reality, which is
considered beyond our cognitive horizon; any reference to it should be refrained from;
Stuart Umpleby
George Washington University, USA • Therefore, the focus of research moves from the world that consists of matter to the
world that consists of what matters;
Terry Winograd
Stanford University, USA
• Constructivist approaches focus on self-referential and organizationally closed systems;
such systems strive for control over their inputs rather than their outputs;
Editor-In-Chief • With regard to scientific explanations, constructivist approaches favor a process-
oriented approach rather than a substance-based perspective, e.g. living systems are
Alexander Riegler defined by processes whereby they constitute and maintain their own organization;
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
• Constructivist approaches emphasize the “individual as personal scientist” approach;
Editorial Board sociality is defined as accommodating within the framework of social interaction;
• Finally, constructivist approaches ask for an open and less dogmatic approach to
Pille Bunnell science in order to generate the flexibility that is needed to cope with today’s scientific
Royal Roads University, Canada frontier.
Olaf Diettrich
Center Leo Apostel, Belgium For more information visit the journal’s website
Dewey Dykstra
Boise State University, USA
Stefano Franchi SUBMISSIONS
University of Auckland, New Zealand
Language: Papers must be written in English. If English is a foreign language for you please
Timo Honkela let the text be proofread by an English native speaker.
Helsinki Univ. of Technology, Finland
Copyright: With the exception of reprints of “classical” articles, all papers are “original
Theo Hug
work,” i.e., they must not have been published elsewhere before nor must they be the
University of Innsbruck, Austria
revised version (changes amount to less than 25% of the original) of a published work.
Urban Kordes However, the copyright remains with the author and is licensed under a Creative
Institut Jozef Stefan, Slovenia
Commons License.
Albert Müller
University of Vienna, Austria
Author’s Guidelines: Before submission, please consult the guidelines at
Herbert F. J. Müller
McGill University, Montreal, Canada Submissions are continuously received
Markus Peschl Send all material to Alexander Riegler,
University of Vienna, Austria
Bernd Porr
University of Glasgow, UK
John Stewart The quality of a journal can only be maintained by thoughtful, careful, and constructive
Univ. de Technologie de Compiègne, France reviewing of both board members and external reviewers. We thank the following
Wolfgang Winter external reviewers for taking the time to review manuscripts submitted to Constructivist
Univ. of Cooperative Education, Germany
Foundations Volume 2: Paolo Ivan Bolognesi, Gary Boyd, Jane Burry, Giancarlo Corsi,
Tom Ziemke
University of Skövde, Sweden Wolfgang Jonas, Richard Jung, Elvira Knaepen, Claus Pias, Francesco Ranci, Fred Steier.
Constructivist Foundations

Festschrift for
Ernst von Glasersfeld
celebrating his 90th birthday
Ranulph Glanville and Alexander Riegler

Table of Contents
Editorial The Philosophy of Marie Larochelle & Jacques Désautels
Ranulph Glanville & Alexander Riegler Radical Constructivism Concerning Ernst von Glasersfeld’s
Editorial: Jack Lochhead Contribution to Intellectual Freedom:
Ninety Years of Constructing ................. 2 Ernst to Amherst, Massachusetts.......... 39 One Interpretation, One Example ....... 90

Overview Leslie P. Steffe Ana Pasztor

Ranulph Glanville Radical Constructivism has been Viable:
Radical Constructivism:
The Importance of Being Ernst ............. 5 On the Democratization of
A Scientific Research Program ............. 41
Math Education .................................... 98
Siegfried J. Schmidt Dewey I. Dykstra Jr.
God Has Created Reality, Andreas Quale
The Challenge of Understanding The Epistemic Relativism of
We Create Worlds of Experience: Radical Constructivism ........................ 50
A Speech in Honour of Ernst von Radical Constructivism:
Glasersfeld to Mark the Award of the Vincent Kenny Some Implications for Teaching the
Gregory Bateson Prize, Natural Sciences ................................. 107
Distinguishing Ernst von Glasersfeld’s
Heidelberg, 6 May 2005 .......................... 7 Radical Constructivism from Humberto Theo Hug
Maturana’s ‘Radical Realism’ ................ 58 Viability and Crusty Snow .................. 114
Early Work
Paul Braffort Bernard Scott
Radical Constructivism and
Ernst Glasersfeld’s The Co-Emergence of Parts and Wholes Its Implications for Society
First Scientific Paper ............................. 12 in Psychological Individuation ............ 65 Gebhard Rusch
Felice Accame Herbert F. J. Müller Understanding. The Mutual Regulation
Ernst von Glasersfeld and the of Cognition and Culture ................... 118
Epistemology Returns to Its Roots ...... 72
Italian Operative School ....................... 18 Laurence D. Richards
Vincent Kenny
Renzo Beltrame Connecting Radical Constructivism to
Anyone for Tennis? Social Transformation and Design .... 129
The Theoretical Environment
Conversations with Ernst on Being
around 1965 .......................................... 25 Markus F. Peschl
Sporting about Epistemology ............... 81
Duane M. Rumbaugh Triple-Loop Learning as Foundation
Ernst von Glasersfeld’s Contributions Radical Constructivism and Teaching for Profound Change, Individual
to the LANA Project ............................. 29 Reinhard Voß Cultivation, and Radical Innovation:
Construction Processes beyond
Marco Bettoni To Find a Daisy in December:
Scientific and Rational Knowledge..... 136
The Yerkish Language: Impressions of Ernst von Glasersfeld
From Operational Methodology to and an Interview with Him about Stuart Umpleby
Chimpanzee Communication .............. 32 Constructivism and Education............. 85 Ernst von Glasersfeld’s Limerick ........ 146

Acknowledgement: The festschrift was generously supported by the American Society of Cybernetics (ASC) and the
Wiener Institut für Sozialwissenschaftliche Dokumentation und Methodik (WISDOM, Austria).
Special thanks to Silvia Pizzocaro (Politechnico Milano, Italy) for her translation of Felice Accame’s contribution.
Copyright of photographs and paintings: Cover page: Werner Horvath, New Austrian Constructivism
Page 1: Jack Lochhead • Other photos: See individual papers for copyright notice
All cartoons throughout the festschrift were exclusively made by Mihaly Lenart.

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 1
anecdotal radical constructivism

Editorial: Ninety Years of Constructing

Ranulph Glanville A CybernEthics Research & University College London (UK) <>
Alexander Riegler A Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium) <>

n 8 March 2007 Ernst von Glasersfeld Overview cato’s position at a time, when von Glasers-
O attains the age of 90. In celebration of In the opening essay, Ranulph Glanville writes feld started to head off for new challenges in
this, we take great pride in publishing this of meeting von Glasersfeld, and of how the the USA. Scholars in the English-speaking
festschrift as our way of saying thank you, and questions asked of him by von Glasersfeld world have known through von Glasersfeld
of sending greetings and our affection to this have continued to fire his work to this day. himself of the connection with the Scuola
remarkable, honest and modest man. Siegfried J. Schmidt, who played a Operativa Italiana and the respect in which
A festschrift is a particular publi- leading role in making construc- Ernst holds Ceccato. But the lack of translated
cation, and we have a particular tivist approaches popular in material has made both this point of origin in
approach. We require that in the German-speaking coun- von Glasersfeld’s work and the significant
the all pieces we will pub- tries in the 1980s, summa- contribution of the Italians to early cybernet-
lish, the work of von Gla- rizes von Glasersfeld’s work ics, inaccessible. We are grateful to our Italian
sersfeld will take centre and person, with a text based colleagues for their willingness to provide ini-
stage. We also invite two on his speech marking the tial access.
types of contribution: award of the Gregory Bateson One challenge lead to Ernst’s work on the
the more normal aca- Prize presented to von Glasers- Language Analogue (LANA) project in the
demic paper, and more feld in Heidelberg on 6 May 2005. early 1970s, which gave him the opportunity
anecdotal pieces which to explore language use in non-human animal
carry a more personal mes- – more specifically, in the chimpanzee Lana.
sage. We are grateful to our Early Work The essay by Duane Rumbaugh, the formal
authors for helping us realise a festschrift that project leader, highlights the important role
attains these aims. We add our thanks, too, to When von Glasersfeld started to publish sci- von Glasersfeld played. A central issue was
photographers, artists and poets who have entific articles in the early 1960s he probably whether chimpanzees are capable of learning
enriched the von Glasersfeld related material did not anticipate that almost half a century the grammar of a language, and so von Gla-
we have been able to publish, which, we later he would have raised the number of sersfeld developed an artificial pictogram-
believe, enhances the general quality. entries in his bibliography to almost 300 (cf. based language, Yerkish, which served as com-
Ernst von Glasersfeld has brought a Some of munication vehicle between human and
remarkable rigour, energy and single-mind- his first works seem to have completely disap- chimpanzee. Marco Bettoni’s paper details this
edness to his pursuit of what he has called peared or are no longer available. Paul Braf- language. This is another area of Ernst’s work
Radical Constructivism (RC). This is a form fort rediscovered Ernst’s first scientific piece: that is mentioned, but which few of us have
of constructivism that doesn’t compromise by a report on Operational Semantics: Analysis of followed in detail. It is wonderful that we have
hedging, but goes straight to the crucial mat- Meaning in Terms of Operations, which the opportunity to bring this work back to the
ter of the necessity for us to acknowledge our appeared in 1961 as internal report of the attention of interested scholars.
presence in our experience, for the observer to Brussels-based European Atomic Energy
actually observe, for the mind to take part in Community (Euroatom). We are delight-
the creation of the reality it describes as eghted to (re-)present this piece of Glasers- The Philosophy of
“sensed.” In this account, we always recognise feld-excavation!
that we are present. This, and the three publications that fol-
Radical Constructivism
It is not out intention to gloss RC here, espe- low it here were the result of Ernst’s collabo- The second challenge von Glasersfeld com-
cially not in the introduction to a festschrift to ration in the Scuola Operativa Italiana, menced working on in the 1970s was the
celebrate and honour the scholar who has done headed by his mentor Sylvio Ceccato. Felice long-term development of a new “epistemol-
most to clarify and elaborate it, so we will stop. Accame’s paper deals with the relationship ogy” (a philosophical term he would later
Given the more than 20 contributions to this between the two scientists, whose primary become hesitant to use) based on his work in
festschrift which cover virtually all aspects of connection was their lively interest in repre- Ceccato’s group, the operational and correla-
Ernst von Glasersfeld’s work, career, and per- sentation and linguistics. The paper of Renzo tional approach on which the Lana project
sonality, any detailed biography would also be Beltrame further explores the theoretical sta- was built, and his interpretation of Jean
superfluous. Rather, we provide a “navigation- tus of the research at the Scuola Operativa Piaget’s épistémologie génétique. He called this
aid” through these articles. Italiana and provides a lucid account of Cec- “Radical Constructivism.”

2 Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3
anecdotal radical constructivism

In his anecdote Jack Lochhead (who tions by integrating ideas from George Her- language allows the shifting of responsibility
brought Ernst from Georgia to Massachu- bert Mead, Humberto Maturana and Gordon for success in mathematics from the students
setts) describes his personal memories of that Pask. Herbert Müller also paints a large pic- back to those who guide them in co-con-
time. Together with Lochhead, Leslie Steffe ture. He discusses the place of RC and some structing knowledge. Based on the discussion
was one of the friends whose efforts were deci- of its implications in the development of an of the epistemic positions of realism and rela-
sive in enabling von Glasersfeld to continue epistemology with the aim of differentiating it tivism, Andreas Quale’s paper focuses on the
on this path. In his paper, Steffe first describes from “traditional metaphysics.” While characterization of the teaching of science in
Ernst’s collaboration on the Interdisciplinary Müller acknowledges the relevance of Ernst’s a RC framework. The author distinguishes
Research on Number (IRON) project which work for a number of disciplines that suffer between cognitive and non-cognitive knowl-
focused on the question of how children con- from conceptual problems such as the mind- edge that plays through the characterization
struct numbers and solve numerical prob- brain relation, he urges us to evaluate its of the teaching of science as contrasted to the
lems, fuelling the further development of RC. implications in specific instances. Finally, teaching of religion. Since, he argues, teach-
Steffe develops this, in the second part part of Vincent Kenny’s anecdotal piece rounds off ing should be carried out in the mode of
his paper, with an idea of how RC can act as the section on the philosophy of RC. In his story-telling, Quale concludes that tradi-
the core of scientific research programs and interview he asks von Glasersfeld questions tional ontology is not required for science-
contribute to other radical constructivist such as “How much patience does it take to be teaching. Theo Hug concludes the section on
research programs whose central problem is a constructivist?” and, by referring to the education with an anecdotal piece which
to explore the operations involved in con- non-conscious aspect of automatisms in seemingly weightlessly discusses some of
structive activity. sports, he points at issues which still need to Ernst’s ideas on the backdrop of a skiing tour
One of the tenets von Glasersfeld has never be addressed more explicitly in RC. in the Austrian alps.
tired of repeating is that “his” theory borrows
from many insights of scientists and philoso-
phers. In his contribution, Dewey Dykstra Radical Constructivism Radical Constructivism
explores yet another link, the parallels
between RC and Buddhist philosophy, which
and Teaching and its Implications for
are clearly visible when it comes to “disequil- However that may be, RC has already Society
ibration” over mismatches between realist addressed and stimulated many aspects in
expectations and experiences – a difficulty areas other than purely philosophical dis- The final section of the festschrift deals with
Dykstra identifies as the perpetual problem of course, among which education is very prom- the implications of RC for society. It starts
understanding RC. While constructivist inent. Reinhard Voß’s interview with von Gla- with Gebhard Rusch’s contribution which
approaches share many distinctive features sersfeld highlights why RC lends itself to builds on the claim that constructivist
on the large scale, flavours differ in detail. questions of teaching and education as it approaches bridge the gap between the cogni-
Vincent Kenny’s critical paper focuses on the opposes the widespread idea that teachers can tive and social facets of understanding. Rusch
different forms of “radicality” to be found in transmit knowledge through language. Marie proposes we take understanding as consisting
the writings of Ernst and in those of Hum- Larochelle and Jacques Désautels’s article indi- of both at the same time: a special kind of
berto Maturana. In tight-rope walking the cates how taking a radical constructivist per- social regulation and a special kind of cogni-
radical gap between them he tries to grasp spective can liberate educators to create new tive regulation. The paper also contains a
onto some of the very different metaphors and valuable types of learning experiences. review of the German tradition of hermeneu-
offered by both theorists, ranging from black RC stresses the importance of developing a tics and an attempt to integrate it with socio-
boxes to submarines. Kenny claims that the reflexive understanding of the world and logical considerations. Larry Richards’s paper
difficulty to join the theorizing of both prompts teachers to scrutinize the processes provides an account of the author’s under-
authors lies in the fact that von Glasersfeld has and distinctions by which students chart out standing of Ernst’s theory and contributes a
focused on the adaptations and learnings that their “world” and to devise models of their part concrete, part speculative connection
go on at the cognitive level whereas Mat- students’ future relationship to the universes between constructivist ways of knowing and
urana’s work is principally in the biological of knowledge intended for learning. Ana Paz- constraint-based approaches to policy for-
domain. In another critical contribution, Ber- tor’s paper clarifies the operational usefulness mulation and social transformation and
nard Scott argues that Ernst’s assumption of a constructivist framework or mindset to design. For the author it is evident that by
about the existence of a “subject” and “oth- the teacher of mathematics (an area in which raising new questions and stimulating new
ers” is one that needs to be further explored Ernst, himself, worked), and illustrates with thinking RC contributes significantly to the
and elucidated. His paper extends his ideas concrete examples from the author’s own development of a conceptual base for applied
and proposes a co-emergent explanation of experience, the contributions Ernst made in research on social activism. Finally, Markus
human awareness and self-consciousness, this field. She devises a “shared experiential Peschl attempts to explain how wisdom is
and with it the “experiential self.” Scott’s con- language” for teachers to embody in order to acquired. He proposes and addresses a need
structivist account of the “self as subject” transform their practice congruently accord- to extend the conception of knowledge con-
avoids the need for any metaphysical assump- ing to constructivist principles. Utilizing this struction, as featured in RC, to include also a

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 3

anecdotal radical constructivism

non-cognitive perception of the world on an sersfeld’s active mental and physical life has “The Wiener medal of the American Society
existential level. It describes and discusses a not diminished. He writes, extending the for Cybernetics is awarded to Ernst von Gla-
particular learning strategy, “triple-loop reach of radical constructivism, and keeping sersfeld for an outstanding and profound
learning,” for this, and a model, “U-theory,” it clean. When a few years ago, von Glasers- lifelong contribution to both cybernetics and
to implement this strategy. Both provide a feld’s house burnt down, and with it he lost the ASC.
valuable extension of the radical constructiv- his extensive library and many first editions, “Von Glasersfeld’s seminal work, developing
ist perspective that focuses on scientific and he set to and rebuilt the house, and is cur- a contructivist approach to problems raised
rational knowledge. rently constructing furniture. He skis, with by early cyberneticians, has enriched the
The festschrift concludes with three von style and competence that shames many of his field and moved the conceptual base of
Glasersfeld–related limericks presented by younger companions. Last autumn, he con- cybernetics into a more consistent vision –
Stuart Umpleby, and illustrated with cartoons cluded an email in which he discussed some expanding the nature of how we understand
specially drawn by Mihaly Lenart (who also scientific aspects with one of us (A.R.), with cybernetics, how we enter into cybernetic
drew the one in this editorial). the words “At last we have some reasonable processes of constructing our worlds, and
Larry Richards is right when he states in his weather and I’m busy chopping wood for the how we approach the consequences of this
paper: “The work and thought of Ernst von winter.” So we cannot but agree with Jack understanding.”
Glasersfeld opens a path toward a rich array of Lochhead who, at the end of his essay, writes, We hope the reader will feel a resonance with
concepts and ideas with the potential to “We continue our preparations for 2017.” this citation through the material in this
inform efforts in a wide variety of human festschrift, and will join all the authors, edi-
endeavors.” After 90 years of constructing In 2005, the American Society for Cybernetics tors and all the others who have participated
knowledge and wisdom, we can discern no awarded Ernst von Glasersfeld its highest in this festschrift in wishing Ernst the happi-
end, or even slowing down. Ernst von Gla- award, the Wiener Medal. The citation reads: est of birthdays, and many more to come.

4 Constructivist Foundations
anecdotal radical constructivism

The Importance of Being Ernst

Ranulph Glanville A CybernEthics Research & University College London (UK) <>

I shall write about my first meeting with

Ernst von Glasersfeld, and how his com-
this way, it is clear that if we see the world dif-
ferently, it is neigh impossible for us to prove
cisely for all the various meanings it has in
English, including some that flatly contradict
ments then on my doctoral study continue to the worlds we see to be the same, and this goes others. Thus, an object is both that thing that
help me clarify what it is I am trying to talk for all elements of these worlds. We may, and exists independently of me, having a so-called
about; how he challenged me to pursue what do, act on the basis that the worlds we see are objective existence, and an intention in doing
has turned out to be my life’s work so far; and the same, but to act on that basis is not to know something. If I do not like this contradiction, I
about how these seem to me now to fit in with it is so. All the elements (including these worlds can object to it, too. This, as it turned out, was
that constellation of ideas. For, as Samuel Beck- and the worlds of these worlds) are my so- exactly the question Ernst would ask me.
ett says: called Objects. In the thesis, I argued the struc- But at the time I wrote my PhD I did not
ture and then explored it, showing how Objets know of Ernst’s work, and, indeed, it was early
“There are many ways of saying in vain the
supported (among other things) not only dif- days for his Radical Constructivism. Nor did I
thing that I am trying in vain to say.”
ferent observations (while believing the really understand the position that would lead
I met Ernst von Glasersfeld through the Objects observed by different observers were to Heinz von Foerster’s essential aphorism in
agency of Jack Lochhead. It was, as far as we can the same), but also important matters such as which he catches the difficulty that Glasers-
both work out, the spring of 1978. At that time how they might support logical relationships feld’s Radical Constructivism somehow sets
I had newly graduated with my PhD in cyber- (so green and hill could be put together to out to resolve, by reconstructing it. Foerster’s
netics from Brunel University. My supervisor make green hill), and how such relationships formulation is
had been Gordon Pask and my external exam- might admit communication.
“Only we can decide the undecidable”
iner Heinz von Foerster. I remarked in the previous paragraph that I
Jack told me of the importance and value of was writing from my standpoint and under- by which he means that, where a question is in
Ernst’s work, and invited me to present the standing in 2006. This is an important rider. At principle undecidable through logical argu-
work in my PhD at a small seminar that the time (1974), I knew why I had invented ment or such like, we are free to chose
included both Jack and Ernst. these Objects, and how to argue for them, but between the alternative answers, according to
Before I go any further I should say some- I was not quite sure what their purpose was or our personal taste, as we chose, and without
thing about my PhD. It consists of a strange what they did. I did, of course, realise they sup- there being any way of determining “objec-
work which is contained in a strange docu- ported difference in observations by different tively” which choice is correct. Indeed, the
ment, including, for instance, a summary of observers (and at different times) since that notion of correct became replaced, in von
the whole thesis in 16 Limericks. It was rejected was my intention for them; but I did not Glasersfeld’s account, by the word viable.
under its original title (“The Object of Objects, understand the nature of the structures, or The key question particularly concerns how
the Point of Points – or, something about what they implied. To be honest, thirty years we judge the status of reality – since we are
Things”) because, the university said, it had no later there are still aspects of Objects that I do needed to observe whatever may exist, in order
library classification for “Things.” It was resub- not understand. to know it exists, and to talk about it: in Hum-
mitted, otherwise unchanged, under the title One question, which I only partially under- berto Maturana’s aphorism
“A Cybernetic Development of Theories of stood at the time, was this: were Objects some-
“Everything said is said by an observer,”
Epistemology and Observation, with reference how real, existing in their own right in what I
to Space and Time, as seen in Architecture,” a would now call some Mind Independent Real- to which von Foerster riposted
title that was accepted and which better ity – although I had no vocabulary for this at
“Everything said is said to an observer,”
reflected the vocabulary of my research pro- the time? I did not know. Or, to be more pre-
posal, though not the content of what actually cise, I thought they were not, yet I spoke of – it is impossible for us to decide whether
appeared, or my sentiment! It was examined in them rather as if they were: I was caught in the what we observe exists apart from our observ-
early 1975. physicality and physical realism of the science I ing. To claim that there is an objective universe
The thesis concerns what I call “Objects” had learnt, and the technological optimism of that exists apart from our observation is not to
(with a capital initial O). Writing from the my childhood. And the choice of the word assert a fact, but to chose one possible answer,
standpoint and understanding I have in 2006, Object, made for good reason, unfortunately one position, and use it as a basis for acting.
Objects are structures which we might assume also created problems: for it seems that in gen- Similarly, to claim that there is no objective
(design) to support the proposition (or posi- eral use we think, primarily, of an object as a universe is equally a choice we use as a basis for
tion) that each of us sees the world differently,1 hard, physical entity, existing in an objective action. These choices are not conclusions of
yet, in spite of these differences, we behave as if frame; whereas I had used the term (and, arguments in logic, and can never be resolved
(believe) the worlds we see are the same. Put implicitly, its various grammatical forms) pre- by exclusive choices in an either/or manner.2

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 5
anecdotal radical constructivism

(The question has been deconstructed A logic by which we can distinguish in the experience), not as either physical entities or
throughout history, but almost always reas- continuum of experience is described in adjuncts to such entities. I realised that I had
sembled, normally taking an axiomatic and George Spencer Brown’s seminal “Laws of either to drop these Objects (which Ernst so
unarguable position rather than one logically Form,” a cult book in the late 1960s, and is cap- objected to but which I loved) or meditate on
developed – precisely because the question it tured in the name of Herbert Müller’s Karl Jas- the notion of reality that they proposed and
poses is undecidable. The great exception may pers Forum as the question of the possibility of required, to resolve the conflict between the
be represented by the sceptic, Phyrro, who a “Mind Independent Reality” fuelling a hot deeper implications of the world they pro-
argued that what was important was to keep debate on the internet. posed and the habits of language I had grown
doubting.) It was against such developing concepts and up with. Over the years this is what I have done.
Glasersfeld’s proposal of what he calls Rad- understandings that second order cybernetics Heinz von Foerster asked me after he had
ical Constructivism may be seen as a renewed came about in the early 1970s. This is a cyber- finished examining my PhD, what I proposed
approach to this undecidable question (just as netics that talks of the observer as in the system doing with it. I had no idea: innocent that I was,
it may be seen as an approach to the so-called being observed, rather than an observer of the the question had never occurred to me. He sug-
problems of linguistic relativism). It is radical system. Amongst its proponents were Foerster, gested I should not publish it as a big book, but
in that original (root) sense that it returns to Humberto Maturana (and his then colleague should take various parts and ideas and present
the root (the Latin root is radox), and examines Francisco Varela) and Gordon Pask, and it was them, extending them as I saw fit. Ernst von
the notion of construction anew. Glasersfeld into this cauldron of currently forming under- Glasersfeld defined for me where, and in refer-
takes Piaget’s radical and revolutionary notion standings that I plugged my Theory of Objects, ence to what, I had to do this. If I have suc-
of the child’s construction and conservation of perhaps forming the final basic building block ceeded in exploring and explaining anything
the object seriously (he talks of this as a driving of second order cybernetics. The gap my about the world as second order cybernetics
insight in the development of his thinking) and Objects were supposed to fill was precisely the proposes it, then it is because in large part Ernst
he is not swayed by the more conventional, and one Piaget points to: that we each experience challenged me to do so.
in my opinion compromised, type of construc- and thus form our percepts and concepts dif- Thank you, Ernst, for the insight, the chal-
tivism in which it is often assumed that there is ferently, and yet we believe that we can talk lenge – and the outcomes.
an independent, objective reality which we, about the same thing. Foerster’s examiner’s
though our short-comings and limitations, are report on the PhD Thesis referred to my work
unable to grasp clearly. A consequence of as the first formal system for Piaget’s concepts. Notes
Piaget’s argument is that it is uncertain that you The question I now realise I was asking was
and I, when we talk of an object, are talking of what sort of structure would we need to 1. In constructivist terms, constructs the
the same thing, or even that there is any such develop that would allow this: and I came up world differently. The story I tell here is, in
given thing as the object or the real world – or with my Objects.3 Objects tell us of the sort of a sense, the story of the shift in my under-
even you and I – out there in what we talk of universe a universe that is built on difference standing which in 1974 I expressed by “see”
and treat as a real world. For what Piaget pos- and construction is. and would now express by “construct.”
tulates is that we must work from the experi- But, as I wrote above, at the same time Gla- 2. Some may argue that there is other evi-
ence we live in, differentiating and thus distin- sersfeld was examining Piaget’s concepts, and dence, but we chose which it is and how to
guishing, forming patterns out of what become was doing so in a less instrumental way. Behind value it. This includes such assertions as
distinct percepts; which, as we forge the pat- his public thinking he was, I believe, asking “it’s inconceivable that” and “it can’t be
terns, create the concepts we then attach to our what Piaget’s account, and the accounts of coincidence,” so often used to justify our
postulated objects which we use to house these those with similar views, meant for how we assumptions, which are assertions of a lack
concepts (deriving from experience), realising understand our being in the world, even that of imagination and an insistence upon the
them by compressing experience. we could believe we were in the world. patterns we find reflecting an inaccessible
It was at this moment that our ideas were actuality.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR brought into the presence of each other. 3. The key (and radical) concept from which
The question Glasersfeld asked me at the the Theory of Objects grows is that, in a
Ranulph Glanville studied architecture and seminar, “Are Objects somehow real, existing universe of observation, everything must
electronic composition followed by cyber- in their own right?” stopped me in my tracks. I be both observable and observed (this is a
netics (his PhD was examined by Heinz von had indeed talked of Objects as though they condition of entry into the universe).
Foerster, his supervisor was Gordon Pask) existed independently, out there in some exis- Therefore, for an Object (such as I) to en-
and then human learning (PhD examined by tential real world in a version of the language of ter the universe it must observe itself. It is
Gerard de Zeeuw, supervisor Laurie Tho- schoolboy physics (though I would have been the self observation that allows the Object
mas). He has published extensively in all hard pressed either to say this, or to indicate to assert – if only to itself – its existence (in
these fields. Glanville teaches and facilitates what sort of existential real world they inhab- this universe).
the development of programmes and ited). Yet they were intended essentially as
research in Universities around the world. mentalistic devices and manoeuvres that reside Received: 8 September2006
in and address the world of observation (and Accepted: 5 February 2007

6 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

God Has Created Reality,

We Create Worlds of Experience
A Speech in Honour of Ernst von Glasersfeld to Mark the Award
of the Gregory Bateson Prize, Heidelberg, 6 May 2005
Siegfried J. Schmidt A Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (Germany) <>

Force; from 1970 he was a psychologist and

Purpose:The paper provides an overview of Ernst von Glasersfeld’s life and theory, con- primate researcher at the University of Geor-
centrating on subjects such as the acquisition of knowledge, language and communication, gia, Athens, before ultimately becoming
ethical questions, and aspects of teaching and learning. Conclusions: Ernst von Glasers- Emeritus Professor at the University of Mas-
feld interests cover a wide range of disciplines.Therefore his work is genuinely rooted in sachusetts, Amherst. During these years, von
interdisciplinarity. Glasersfeld was also in constant demand on
Key words: Philosophy, linguistics, ethics, teaching. the worldwide lecture circuit. I believe that
this “atypical” path through life protected von
Glasersfeld from developing a number of neg-

My Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Ernst,
multilingual youth in Austria, the South Tyrol
and Switzerland, his time in Australia as a ski
ative characteristics which beset the majority
of “standard” academics – namely a fixation
Throughout my long acquaintance with instructor and racer, his life as a farmer in Ire- with a discipline’s preset topics and a simple
Ernst von Glasersfeld and his work, I have land during the Second World War and, after acceptance of well-worn, discipline-specific
found his ideas and insights to be both intel- 1947, his career as a sports and culture patterns of seeing and thinking. Liberated
lectually fascinating and of considerable reporter, camping on the shores of Lake from set patterns of thinking, von Glasersfeld
assistance in solving life’s more practical Garda in the Val di sogno – the idyllic back- was able to turn his attention to those aspects
problems. Fortunately, von Glasersfeld has drop for his initial encounter with Silvio Cec- of his subject which truly interested him. He
also come to my aid today, as I attempt to cato’s mother. Von Glasersfeld describes this could focus on what he actually wanted to
explain his work a little, in order to demon- encounter in the following way. Working on know, and on how he could express his ideas
strate why we are honouring him with this his typewriter in front of his tent whilst his in the clearest and most precise manner.
important prize. two-year-old daughter played naked on the Growing up using three languages (he
Ernst von Glasersfeld once remarked that beach nearby, he noticed a boat being rowed learnt French at school), yet without an actual
when we look back over our lives, or the lives past on the bay, which soon returned the way mother-tongue, further helped liberate von
of others, we should substitute any demand it had come. It was clear that the woman in the Glasersfeld from set patterns of thinking.
for objectivity with the perspective of the boat was interested in the unusual situation Lacking the intuitive connection to a mother-
observer, which should be as coherent as pos- playing out on the beach. After a few days, she tongue, one experiences the constructive role
sible. His own relationship to works and spoke to von Glasersfeld, of language. Von Glasers-
authors, he stressed, was never hermeneutic asking what he was work- “One must build a feld’s early experience of
in nature, but was instead determined by ing on. “It’s mostly about different reality with each the differences between
whether they could be of help in solving his philosophy, that’s what
own problems. interests me,” von Glasers-
language. This is precisely languages gave him a clear
sense “that one must build
I would like to take these two pieces of feld answered, to which the point which led me to a different reality with
advice as the starting-point for a subject-spe- she replied: “Philosophy? constructivism” each language. […] This
cific look – in other words, my own – at the life My son’s a philosopher – is precisely the point
and work of Ernst von Glasersfeld. you must meet him.” Thus it was that von Gla- which led me to constructivism.” (Glasersfeld
sersfeld got to know Silvio Ceccato and 1999, p. 195). This experience also led von
Born an Austrian national in Munich in 1917, became his colleague at the Milan Centre of Glasersfeld to the conclusion that meaning
Ernst von Glasersfeld did not enjoy a “stan- Cybernetics in the Scuola Operativa Italiana. does not lie in a text itself, but is actively con-
dard” academic education, nor did his career From 1966 onwards von Glasersfeld also structed by the listeners in their own way.
follow a straight course. His autobiographical worked as a linguist and concept-analyst on a By preparing the subject in this way, we
stories describe the many phases of his life: his research project run by the American Air have already begun to stray onto the intellec-

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 7
historical radical constructivism

American Pragmatists, from Vaihinger’s phi-

losophy of “As if,” L. Wittgenstein and from G.
Kelly. He has ascribed the first outline of a
consciously constructivist theory to Giam-
battista Vico – a theory which states: man can
only know what he constructs himself: verum
ipsum factum. Whatever a man thinks and
knows can therefore never represent an onto-
logical reality, or as the Latin original from
1710 states: “Deus naturae artifex, homo arti-
ficiorum deus.” For mankind, the only things
that truly exist are those which mankind itself
has constructed through perception and con-
ceptual work, something illustrated in Bishop
Berkeley’s principle esse est percipi.
This short construction of a pre-history of
constructivism makes clear why operational-
ism (Operationalismus) and pragmatism
have become so important for the modern
development of constructivist thought, espe-
cially in the work of Percy Bridgman, Hugo
Ernst von Glasersfeld together with the author, Siegfried J. Schmidt, in Heidelberg, Germany, 2005. Dingler and above all Silvio Ceccato and his
colleagues Vittorio Somenzi, Enrico Albani,
tual path that leads to the basic principles of [ The constructivist Ernst von Glasersfeld Guiseppe Vaccarino and Ferruccio Rossi-
von Glasersfeld’s constructivism. These prin- does not claim, however, that objective Landi. They all focus on the central question:
ciples are: reality does not exist. Rather, he claims what must one do, cognitively and practically,
[ In constructivism, the subject plays the that we can not know such a reality. in order to achieve a certain result? How does
central role of the constructor. “I understand by ‘reality’ a network of one operate conceptually, in order to achieve
[ It is the active subject who constructs concepts, which have proven themselves to a certain conception? “Indeed,” he has repeat-
sense, meaning and reality through his be appropriate and useful – that is, ‘viable’ edly stated, “radical constructivists never say:
thoughts and actions. – in the perception of the subject. They ‘This is how it is!’ They merely suggest: ‘This
[ If reality is seen as the result of human have proven this by repeatedly helping the may be how it functions.’” (Glasersfeld 2000,
imagination – as an inductively con- subject to overcome obstacles successfully, p. 4)
structed world of experience (Erfahrungs- and by aiding the conceptual ‘assimilation’ The perspective of these questions – a per-
welt) – it follows that human knowledge of their experiences.” (Glasersfeld 1997, spective which moves away from an ontolog-
can no longer be expected or obliged to p. 47). ical orientation on entities to an orientation
represent a reality which exists objectively, Together, these fundamental principles of on processes, their constraints and their out-
and that the active observer must accept his constructivist thought implicitly connect comes (Prozessualität) – helps us to under-
responsibility for his individual construc- to similar principles within the wider philo- stand the significance of Jean Piaget for Ernst
tion of reality. Such considerations make it sophical tradition. Ernst von Glasersfeld von Glasersfeld.
clear that one can, and should, develop a repeatedly reminds us that constructivism I shall never forget the context in which I
theory of knowledge (Wissenstheorie) was not exclusively his own discovery. He first came across this connection. In 1990,
without being constrained by the notes with modesty how he learnt from the Mauro Ceruti organised a conference on the
demands of an epistemology (Erkenntnis- great thinkers – thinkers so diverse in range epistemological theory of Jean Piaget. The
theorie). Radical constructivism, under- that to speak of them in one breath could conference was held in the old and beautifully
stood here as a theory of knowledge, pro- panic a traditional philosopher. Von Glasers- named palace Palazzo della Ragione in Ber-
vides a model of our ability to create feld learnt from the pre-Socratic thinkers, gamo. The presence of Bärbel Inhelder at the
knowledge in the sense of ideas which who argued with irrefutable logic that every- conference, a long-time colleague of Piaget
work. As Jean Piaget has shown, this thing we term knowledge is human, gener- (who had died in 1980), had drawn a large
knowledge results solely from of our ated by our specific way of doing things and crowd of prominent thinkers from many dis-
actions and the operation of our minds. thus limited by our human capabilities. He ciplines and countries. At one of the confer-
[ “Cognition serves to organise a subject’s learnt from the apophantic theology of the ence meals, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Heinz von
world of experience, and not the subject’s Byzantines, from Johannes Scotus Eriugena, Foerster and Paul Watzlawick – the core of
‘insight’ into an objective, ontological from Hume and from Locke, from Berkeley constructivist thought in Austria – were sit-
reality.” (Glasersfeld 1996, p. 96) and from Vico. He learnt from Kant, the ting next to each other. It was a picture for the

8 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

history books. But let us return to Piaget. straints illustrated by Gregory Bateson, after reacted against the behaviourists’ elimination
Piaget’s decisive principle for undertaking whom today’s prize is named. Through his of aims and objectives from language and
research into cognition was: “intelligence concept of constraints, Bateson avoided communication theory. Instead, he devel-
organises the world while it organises itself.” describing the effects of evolution in causal oped a cognitive language and communica-
Knowledge, according to Piaget, does not cre- terms. Ernst von Glasersfeld uses precisely tion theory, based on the premise that any
ate an objective reproduction of reality, but such concepts, not only when referring to analysis of meaning must always be con-
rather supports a process of adaptation to the evolution, but also to the construction of nected to an analysis of concepts or mental
constraints set by our environment. Knowl- knowledge, language-acquisition and all constructs. The implication of this is that a
edge enables an organism to achieve equilib- forms of communication. When communi- semantic analysis should be conducted in the
rium in its environment; that is to say, it sup- cating, we adapt to the constraints “[…] form of a cognitive analysis which focuses on
ports survival – and every action that which result from the way we perceive our fel- “[…] the conceptual items a linguistic state-
preserves or restores this equilibrium is an low man’s use of language” (Glasersfeld 1997, ment invokes and the relations that are pos-
effective action. Seen in p.17). In this way, our use ited between them,” rather than on the state-
this light, it is clear why “The world in which we live of language becomes ment’s relationship with an non-linguistic
Ernst von Glasersfeld saw attuned to that of others: reality or a statement’s truth-value (Glasers-
Piaget’s theory as, at
and perceive ourselves is that is, viable under the feld 1974, p. 130). For example, when consid-
heart, a cybernetic theory. the world which we create prevailing circumstances. ering the meaning of a verb, or when translat-
Piaget broke with the and maintain within the We can understand each ing it – and as an experienced translator von
philosophic tradition constraints we have other without succumb- Glasersfeld knew what he was talking about –
which explored the ing to the illusion that we it is necessary to work out all the conceptual
truth-value of knowl- hitherto experienced” each had precisely the situations in which the verb can be used and
edge, and explored same meaning in mind. applied. Concepts or mental representations
instead the origins and the application of this The question of experiential reality (Erfahr- must always be seen dynamically, as “rela-
knowledge by studying how children con- ungswirklichkeit), too, can be answered by the tively self-contained programs or production
struct their reality. Von Glasersfeld saw constraints model: “The world in which we routines that can be called up and run.” (Gla-
Piaget’s ideas as the logical extension to live and perceive ourselves is the world which sersfeld 1987, p. 219) When the recipient of a
Vico’s, Berkeley’s, Wittgenstein’s and Cec- we create and maintain within the constraints linguistic expression has to construct its
cato’s position that cognition cannot repro- we have hitherto experienced. – What could meaning from conceptual elements that he
duce the real world. According to Piaget, be more cybernetic?” (ibid.) already possesses – that is, elements derived
actions and conceptual operations are As a former linguist and philosopher of from previous abstractions of actions, inter-
adapted – or to use von Glasersfeld’s term, are language myself, I was particularly interested actions and communications – then meaning
viable – when they match the purposes to in Ernst von Glasersfeld’s views on language, must be seen as “irrefutably subjective”: as
which we put them. The traditional concept not least because the something which arises in
of truth is thus replaced in the field of experi- most difficult questions “If we were to believe we relation to the previous
ence with the concept of “viability” (Viabil- for a constructivist lie in knew both good and evil, experience of the recipient.
ität). Von Glasersfeld delineates the genera- this area. How can one The presupposition of suc-
tive power which Piaget ascribes to reconcile the cognitive
we would be dangerous cessful communication is
humankind on three levels: autonomy of the subject beings indeed.” thus that communication
[ The segmentation level, where we estab- with the experience of partners possess compara-
lish stable objects, by concentrating on successful communication? How are we to ble experiences. These experiences comprise
similarities and disregarding differences understand understanding? all the conventional rules of language use,
(Objektpermanenz); Throughout the 1970s, Ernst von Glasers- which result from social interaction and
[ The relational level, which enables the feld was engaged in an intensive debate with therefore help to co-orient communication
subject to think with the aid of cognitive leading linguists and philosophers of lan- partners even though they cannot see inside
schemata; guage such as C. Cherry, C. Shannon, S. each other’s minds. As a consequence, the
[ The reflexive level, where abstraction is Langer, C. Hockett or N. Chomsky (for concept of subject-dependent meaning must
derived from the operations of the subject, details see Schmidt 2000), in which he pro- be complemented by acknowledging the sig-
forming complex structures such as theo- posed that communication was an instru- nificance of other people, of fellow humans.
ries and systems. mental, goal-oriented and thus deliberate Von Glasersfeld has stated emphatically that
This concept of knowledge as action as process. In cybernetic terms, this process is the development of concepts in autonomous
well as effect further establishes the connec- determined by goals as “reference values” cognitive systems can occur only through
tion with cybernetics. Here, too, the primary (Referenzwerte), sensuality as “sensory func- social interaction and must also relate to via-
concerns are issues of regulation and self-reg- tion” (sensorische Funktion) and technology ble experiences in a shared field of experience
ulation, of evolutionary constraints on think- as “effector function” (Effektorfunktion). Von (for details see von Glasersfeld 1997, pp. 59–
ing, interaction and communication – con- Glasersfeld’s model of communication 60, 206; Glasersfeld 1995, pp. 138–143). Cog-

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 9

historical radical constructivism

nitive autonomy and social orientation are no rational philosophy from which an ethic tently, and that those ways of thinking and
therefore not mutually exclusive. Linguistic may be firmly derived. “If we were to believe acting that are currently seen as the most
expressions are semiotic embodiments of we knew both good and evil, we would be effective should be preserved for the next gen-
social experiences – they result from our dangerous beings indeed.” (Glasersfeld 1996, eration. (Glasersfeld 1996, p. 284) However,
social interaction and continuously work pp. 335, 347) when it comes to evaluating knowledge, a
back on our linguistic and non-linguistic Ernst von Glasersfeld has always empha- cleft opens between von Glasersfeld and the
experience and concept formation. As con- sised that constructivists must take responsi- educationalists. Traditional concepts of
straints of social interaction they oblige us to bility for their own constructions, and that knowledge see it as value-free and objective,
adapt the way we use language to common this responsibility is a social responsibility. whereas von Glasersfeld sees all knowledge as
usage. This means that we must see our fellow instrumental. According to von Glasersfeld,
In contrast to many philosophers of lan- human beings not simply as students should from the
guage who frequently praise language as the a means, but also as a pur- One of the basic tenets outset be made aware of the
highest form of human achievement, von pose. We must always of constructivism is that reasons why certain ways of
Glasersfeld remains characteristically sober respect our fellow human thinking and acting are
and sceptical, noting that “if, today, we look at being’s cognitive auton- there is never only one preferable. The primary
what we have done with the help of that omy. In order to achieve a correct way aim of education should
splendid tool, one may begin to wonder reliable construction of not be to pass an examina-
whether, at some future time, it will still seem reality, we clearly need other people. Only in tion, but to be intellectually more competent
obvious that language has enhanced the sur- this way can we construct a better, intersub- and successful. Since it is one of the basic
vival of life on this planet” (Glasersfeld 1976, jectively valid reality. In other words, we need tenets of constructivism that there is never
p. 223). These are the thoughts and words of other people not only for ethical, but also for only one correct way, a constructivist cannot
someone who – as I mentioned above – thinks epistemological reasons. propose a single, authoritative, didactic
in processes, and not in ontological identities. In the year 2000, I had a particularly method. Nevertheless, he can explain to a stu-
Ernst von Glasersfeld’s radical construc- inspiring encounter with Ernst von Glasers- dent why certain attitudes and techniques are
tivism is often accused of lacking a sustain- feld during the conference “Learning in the unproductive, by using the concepts of con-
able ethical orientation, and of justifying – at Age of the Internet” held in Brixen, in the structivism to reassess and re-conceptualise
least implicitly – the idea that every ethical South Tyrol. His lecture – so clear in tone and basic notions of communication, learning,
construction, however aberrant, is simply brimming with his years of experience – was knowledge, interaction and motivation. A
one construction amongst others. It has been the high point of the conference. consequence of constructivist thought is thus
repeatedly shown that such assertions are In his lecture, Ernst von Glasersfeld once the idea that learning – in contrast to training
nothing more than a cynically reductive again explained the fundamental principles – is a product of self-organisation. Knowl-
approach to constructivist thought (for of his concept of a constructivist education. edge is only acquired through active assimila-
details see Schmidt 1996). Still, it should be From the outset he made it absolutely clear tion to cognitive structures one already pos-
noted that the forefathers of constructivism, that he accepted the two basic pedagogical sesses, and is never acquired passively (for
amongst them Ernst von Glasersfeld, had goals of educationalists: that pupils should details see von Glasersfeld 1995, chapter 10).
good reason to be cautious when considering learn to think independently and consis- Teachers must always have the confidence
ethical questions. Particularly illuminating in that their pupils can think independently.
this respect is von Glasersfeld’s second Siege- Their art resides in “encouraging pupils to
ner Gespräch from 1984. Asked how he would ABOUT THE AUTHOR formulate problems independently – prob-
respond as a constructivist to moral prob- lems which promote specific ways of think-
lems, he answered: “If you are asking this con- Siegfried J. Schmidt has been professor of ing.” (Glasersfeld 1997, p. 209).
structivist what he thinks, well, I never stray linguistics, literary theory and theory of Ernst von Glasersfeld’s constructivism is
beyond Plato’s Phaedrus: either you know media and communication at the universi- neither a super-theory nor a foundation-the-
what is good, or you don’t. […] As soon as ties of Bielefeld, Siegen and Münster. 2006 ory. Indeed, he never even claims to have
somebody says “You must know what is good,” he became Emeritus Professor at the West- developed a theory. His constructivism offers
they’ve already formulated it incorrectly. You fälische Wilhelms- Universität at Münster. us a way “to cope with the world of experi-
must feel what is good. There is no theory to He has published more than 700 books and ence, which can never really be compre-
save or spare you this decision.” (1987, p. 430) articles in 19 languages in the fields of phi- hended” and to solve problems in a viable,
Ernst von Glasersfeld believes that there losophy, linguistics, empirical theory of liter- rather than a “correct,” way. “Correct” and
are good reasons for taking moral decisions, ature, media and communication theory. “incorrect,” he says, are terms which always
and that specific moral decisions can be justi- He is a member of the Academia Europaea relate to a concrete goal or to a problem which
fied. In accordance with Heinz von Foerster and honorary president of the International needs to be solved. For a thinker of von Gla-
(Foerster & Bröcker 2002), he also believes, Society for the Empirical Study of Literature sersfeld’s calibre, such statements show a rare
however, that there is no absolute foundation and the Media. sense of modesty – a modesty which results
for evaluative judgements, and that there is from a humanitarianism which seeks neither

10 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

to correct nor train others, but rather to help one’s thought processes can become more von Glasersfeld is also a tremendous host,
them develop independence. Underlying this creative and open once one accepts the Vor- who can not only prepare outstanding des-
is Ernst von Glasersfeld’s experience of the läufigkeit all unserer Endgültigkeiten – the pro- serts, but is also a highly practical person
finitude and fragility of visional nature of what all when it comes to technical matters. I still
human actions – its con- One’s thought processes too often seems, or is benefit today from a knee stool he designed,
tingentia, in Aristotle’s
sense. Von Glasersfeld
can become more creative made to seem, final. and which I had built according to his plans.
When, in 1982 and 1984, Ernst von Glasers-
gathered this experience as and open once one accepts To talk of Ernst von Gla- feld came to Germany to take part in the
a traveller between lan- the provisional nature of sersfeld is to talk of a per- Siegener Gespräche on constructivism, I had
guages, cultures and soci- what all too often seems, son with many moving the honour of hosting him and his wife at my
eties – a journey which and persuasive personal home in Münster. In those days, the German
taught him what to avoid,
or is made to seem, final characteristics. In all the motorways were still comparatively empty,
rather than which goals he time I have known him, he and during his visit I treated him to many fast
should set himself. He was able to liberate has always radiated a sense of calm, not only car journeys. He loves fast cars and driving at
himself from set patterns of thinking, allow- in private, but also in public – whether in high speeds – two things which, to his great
ing him to develop his ideas with clarity, open debates with his students at the Univer- regret, he has to forgo in the USA.
patience and persuasiveness, but without rad- sity of Georgia, or during more fractious
ical fanaticism. He wins over his reader and exchanges with the opponents of construc- We have much to thank Ernst von Glasers-
his audiences, liberating them from the illu- tivism at many a conference. Since my first feld for, both as a thinker and as a man. In
sory demand for truth, objective knowledge encounter with von Glasersfeld at a confer- this talk I have tried to highlight a few aspects
and eternal values. During my acquaintance ence in Madrid in 1977, he has repeatedly of his thought and character, in order to
with Ernst von Glasersfeld, I too have had the proven himself to be a brilliant speaker and thank him personally for his work and his
liberating experience of discovering how raconteur – time flies when he speaks. Ernst friendship.

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the Conference on Origins and Evolution keit. Beiträge zum Konstruktivismus. Radikalen Konstruktivismus. Suhrkamp:
of Speech and Language. New York Acad- Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag: Heidelberg. Frankfurt/M., pp. 401–440.
emy of Science, Sept. 22–25, 1975. Schmidt, S. J. (1996) Was leistet ein Vertreter
Glasersfeld, E. von (1987) Preliminaries to einer historisch-kritischen Hermeneutik Translated by Benedict Schofield
any theory of representation. In: Janvier, für die Kritik am Radikalen Konstruktivis-
C. (ed.) Problems of representation in the mus und an der Empirischen Literatur- Received: 31 July 2006
teaching and learning of mathematics. wissenschaft? Deutsche Vierteljahres- Accepted: 5 February 2007

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 11

historical radical constructivism

Ernst Glasersfeld’s First Scientific Paper

Commented by Paul Braffort A ALAMO (France) <>

A historical note Purpose:At Silvio Ceccato’s suggestion, I invited Ernst von Glasersfeld to the “Séminaire
Leibniz” which took place in Brussels, in February 1961. The paper he delivered then,
The first published contribution by Ernst von
Operational Semantics: Analysis of Meaning in Terms of Operations, was included in a Euratom
Glasersfeld in the fields of linguistics and
internal report and is published here for the first time.
epistemology was his translation (from Ital-
Conclusion:These early works clearly show von Glasersfeld’s methodological and philo-
ian to English) of Silvio Ceccato’s Il linguag-
sophical coherence as well as his faithfulness to Ceccato’s endeavour.
gio con la Tabella di Ceccatieff, published in
Key words: Linguistic, machine translation, Scuola Operativa Italiana.
1951 by Hermann & Cie in Paris. He then
joined Ceccato’s “Scuola Operativa Italiana”
and became deeply involved in their work research on Linguistic Analysis and Mechan- taking place. Silvio’s presentation was entitled
which found financial support from Eura- ical Translation. La machine qui pense et qui parle (Ceccato
tom, and the European Office of the U.S. Air I met Silvio Ceccato for the first time in 1958). We became friends and had fascinating
Force (Air Research and Development Com- June 1956 in Namur (Belgium) where the discussions in Milan (with Enzo Morpurgo)
mand). So he contributed to the Scuola’s First Cybernetics International Congress was and Vulcano (after a session in Messina with
Giuseppe Vaccarino). Both were
members of the Scuola Operativa
When, in 1959, I was hired by
Euratom for doing research in
Automatic Documentation and
Automatic Translation (GRISA,
Groupe de Recherches sur l’Infor-
mation Scientifique Automatique),
I started an official cooperation
with Ceccato’s team and so met
Glasersfeld. We succeeded in gath-
ering a number of European
experts and publishing contribu-
tions from them.
At Ceccato’s suggestion, I
invited Ernst von Glasersfeld to the
“Séminaire Leibniz” which took
place in Brussels, in February 1961.
The paper he delivered then, Oper-
ational Semantics: Analysis of
Meaning in Terms of Operations,
was included in a Euratom internal
report. Figure 1 shows a facsimile of
its first page. Von Glasersfeld’s short
papers included in the Technical
Report submitted to the Air Force
are also mentioned here. He pub-
lished three other papers during
1962–1963 but which are not
readily available either. So I decided
to make his first paper reader-
Figure 1: Facsimile of the first page. friendly such that it can be pub-
lished here for the first time.

12 Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3
historical radical constructivism

Operational semantics: expressing them will hardly ever be the same (Note: here and in the following, “to local-
in both languages. Hence, any serious ize” means that one attributes a particular
Analysis of meaning in research aiming at M.T. must necessarily place to a thing.)
Terms of Operations include thorough analysis of the semantic In our notation we represent this as follows:
relations evolved by the language concerned. M1 M2
(February 1961) The semantic analysis carried out up to the X X
summer of 1960 has, on one hand, confirmed L1 L2
The Operational Approach to Mechanical us in the opinion that of all the different kinds
Translation is based on the following assump- of words those expressing a developmental A simple structure such as this can derive
tions: situation are the most complex in respect of from more than one kind of developmental
a. language is an expression of thought and the number of operational elements involved; situation. In fact, we find that two of the verbs
trains of thought; on the other hand, if this preliminary work mentioned above – all of which contain this
b. thought is analyzable in terms of opera- had not yet given us a definitive classification structure – can also be applied to more than
tions; of elements (definitive both with regard to one situation; for instance “John goes to the
c. thought operations carried out by man their number and to their final individua- bathroom” and “this pipe goes to the bath-
are, on the whole, the same regardless of tion), it had at least supplied us with precise room” – where John is moving, and the pipe
the particular language in which the think- ideas about how to carry out such analysis. is not.
ing subject intends to express them. As a result of these considerations it was At first sight it might seem that the reason
An explicit statement of the theoretical decided, at the start of the project’s second for this ambivalence is that by localizing John
and empirical research that led to these stage, to concentrate analytical work on the in the bathroom one categorically excludes
assumptions is contained in our Report on most frequent expressions of developmental his being localized anywhere else at the same
the work carried out between January 1959 situations, because a classification of opera- moment, whereas with the pipe this is not so.
and June 1960. Points c) and b) are the main tional elements obtained in this way will pre- This would amount to saying: the nomina-
subject of Silvio Ceccato’s contribution. In the sumably require few additions or modifica- tum of “pipe” includes the operational parti-
following they are taken for granted. tions when being applied, subsequently, to cle “extension,” while the nominatum of
With regard to point c) certain reserva- other kind of expressions. “John” does not. The distinction would be
tions have to be made. We say the thought The direct expression of a developmental very comfortable, but unfortunately it does
operations of different language group are on situation is usually called “verb”; the same sit- not always hold. In fact, I can also find the ele-
the whole the same, because even a cursory uation, with an addition of another mental ment of extension in the nominatum of
examination of two or more languages shows category can also be expressed by a noun “John” whenever I want to (for instance, if I
that the expressions they have evolved to indi- (nomen actionis or nomen agentis). know that his other name is Gulliver, I can, at
cate certain situations are not equivalent and, In order to analyse a verb, we take stock of a pinch, refer to his extension by saying “he
further, that the thought operations by means the operational elements necessary to make goes from the front door to the bathroom”).
of which a member of one language group up the developmental situation expressed by Actually, the ambivalence of the verb is
constructs a given situation are not always it, and we try to push this analysis far enough much less controllable and we cannot estab-
identical with those used by members of to be able to distinguish the nominatum of lish any a priori rules. We distinguish the sit-
another language group (a current example is the verb in question, by at least one opera- uations to which it refers by what we call the
the situation in which an Englishman says “I tional element, from the nominata of all the “Notional Sphere,” i.e., a network of specific
like John” while an Italian says “John mi other verbs that have been examined. relations established between nominata in the
piace”: the first formulates the fact as a result, Since any developmental situation course of our living experience. It is on this
the second as though it were the result of an involves a temporalisation – i.e., the insertion basis that we cope with ambiguous words and
activity of John). of several operational elements into a certain also with expressions like “its shadow goes
In the following I shall not deal with this temporal sequence (cf. the German term across the field” – where we are inclined to see
kind of discrepancy which springs from a dif- “Zeitwort”) – our analysis proceeds by split- motion when we know that “it” stands for a
ference in the ways of correlating rather than ting the “meaning“ of the verb into at least two plane, and extension when we know that “it”
from a difference in the meaning of individual moments. If, for instance, we consider verbs stands for a tree. That is to say, in order to
words. Considering only the semantic rela- like “to come,” “to go,” “to move,” etc, (i.e., decide the question of locomotion/extension
tions, i.e., the relations between words and verbs that indicate a developmental situation we use indications obtained, not from the
their nominata, one finds that languages dif- involving a change of place) we find that all of verb and often not even from the sentence,
fer considerably; that is to say, although the them refer – apart from other things – to a but from a wider context.
operational elements making up a train of common block of operations: If we now ask in what way the situation
thought may remain the same whether the [ at a moment M1 a thing X is localized in a indicated by the verbs “to come,” “to go,” and
thought be expressed in English or, say, in place L1, and “to move” differ from each other, we realize
German, the arrangement or grouping of [ at a moment M2 a thing considered the that, besides the common block of opera-
these elements in connection with the words same thing X is localized in a place L2. tional elements, each of them contains further

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 13

historical radical constructivism

operational elements that distinguish it from in the case of “to come” and “to go” did not the situation where John changes the place of
the others. interfere with the possibility of applying something else. The issue will be decided
In order to say that something “comes,” we either the category of “motion” or that of exclusively on the basis of other words figur-
have to have an operational element that spec- “extension,” in the case of “to move” there ing in the expression which may or may not
ifies the motion or extension of the common must be an element which excludes this dual indicate another thing categorized as “object.”
block as motion or extension reaching a par- possibility. In fact, if we see a thing in one That is to say, in “John goes” or “John comes”
ticular point, namely a point with which the place and, at a subsequent moment, in X is necessarily regarded as the agent of the
speaker identifies himself in some way (how another place, this is not yet enough to say activity; in “John moves” this is not so, for
this “identification” is arrives at operationally “the thing moves”; in order to say “it moves” “John” may indicate X, and in this case X and
is another question which, in this context, we must see X in L1, then L1 without X and, the agent will be one and the same thing; but
does not interest us). We can represent this finally, X in L2. Hence, the explicit formula for if the expression contains the further indica-
more complete situation by the formula: “to move” should be: tion of something categorized as “object”
M1 M2 M3 M1 M2 M3 (e.g., “John moves a pawn”) “John” merely
X X X X – X indicates the agent, while the object “pawn”
L1 L2 LSp L1 L1 L2 indicates the X of the development.
In this notation the agent is indicated by a,
In this kind of analysis it is important to (Note: in M2 of this structure there is a and it is given the place in the structure for-
keep verbs apart from the prepositions which location, i.e., the result of localising a thing, mula that best represents the role it plays in
may accompany them. If, for instance, we put but the thing is not present. This would be the developmental situation expressed by the
“to Paris” after “to come,” we not only add contradictory, if the location were not simply particular verb.
something to the structure indicated by the the maintained result of the localisation In the case of verbs like “to come” and “to
verb, but we also change it; the element LSp is effected for X in M1. go,” that is to say, verbs which conventionally
replaced by the definite location “Paris” The second question – whether the X of take no direct object, the agent obviously
which no longer necessarily conveys the indi- the formula is to find expression in language coincides with that part of the development
cation the X reaches a point with which the as “subject” or “object” – is the age-old ques- which we indicate by X; hence we write:
speaker identifies himself. tion of transitivity or intransitivity. From the M1 M2 M3
The developmental situation expressed by operational point of view “subject,” “object,” Xa Xa Xa
“to go” is, of course, the inverse of the one indi- and “development” are mental categories, L1 L1 LSp for “to come,” and
cated by “to come,” and we write its formula: that is to say, the results of a kind of operating
M1 M2 M3 different from that which yields, for instance, M1 M2 M3
X X X differentiata. We have already come across Xa Xa Xa
LSp L2 L3 results of this purely mental kind of operating LSp L2 L3 for “to go.”
in the case of “locomotion”/”extension”;
Here, too, we find that specification of L3, these, too, are mental categories. What inter- In the case of verbs that represent a devel-
for instance by the preposition “to,” may cancel ests us here, however, is not their intrinsic opmental situation that does not contain a
the indication LSp; and, further, when X is of a structure or the way in which they are made, part necessarily categorized as “subject,” that
certain kind – i.e., an engine – the “change of but rather their application to a purely obser- is to say, a situation in which the agent can,
place” need no longer be seen as locomotion or vational material and the expression of the but need not, coincide with X, because X can
extension, but may also indicate “partial resulting combinations of language. Thus we also be categorized as “object,” we have two
motion” or “functioning.”) have found that the verbs “to come” and “to possible places for “a”: one in coincidence
The developmental situation indicated by go” do not semantize the categorization of with X, when the verb is used “intransitively”
“to move” differs in at least two respects from the situation as “locomotion” or “extension,” (Xa); and another, previous to the moment of
the nominata “to come” and “to go.” Firstly, but only the situation previous to the partic- the development concerning the object X, but
unlike these, it cannot be categorized as “exten- ular operational step of applying one of these that plays no other part in the moments of the
sion,” but exclusively as “motion”; secondly, the categories. The verbs, however, require a cer- development.
verb gives no indication whether the thing X, tain part of the material (i.e., the part we have For “to move,” therefore, we write:
which in M1 and M2 is localized in different indicated by X) to be categorized as “subject” M1 M2 M3
places, will – grammatically speaking – find regardless of the situation in which they may a X – X
expression as subject or as object. occur. The verb “to move,” on the other hand, L1 L1 L2
With regard to the first point we can say leaves open the categorization of the corre-
that, whereas the operational element added to sponding piece, that is to say, it depends on and we add the notational rule that this
the basic block the context whether X is to be categorized as formula implicitly comprises the alternative:
M1 M2 “subject” or as “object.” Hence the expression M1 M2 M3
X X “John moves” is equally applicable to the sit- Xa – Xa
L1 L2 uation where John, changes his place and to L1 L1 L2

14 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

Which is indicated by the same verb M1 M2 M1 M2 M3

whenever the linguistic expression of the to clap a X X–Z to hit af X Z X–Z
developmental situation does not explicitly L1 L2 L1 Ln L2
specify an object.
[ Establishing contact and producing noise; [ Establishing contact, relative force;
In the case of developmental situation
[ X and Z may be covered by a plural (e.g., [ X may remain implicit.
that necessarily contain an object, we indi-
cate this object by Y, while any other thing the M1 M2 M3
[ X and/or Z may remain implicit.
development may bring into relation with X to strike af X X–Z X–Z
or Y is indicated by Z (or other letters). M1 M2 L1 L2 Ln
As an illustration of how this method is to slap Xf pX pX–Z [ Establishing contact and state of motion in
applied I should like to take a group of com- L1 L2 contact, relative force;
paratively simple and very common verbs, all [ X and/or Z may remain implicit;
[ Establishing surface contact, relative force;
of which concern some kind of contact [ L2–Ln may be motion of X in contact with
[ pX (part of X) or Z may be soft;
between physical things: Z (surface of X moving along point of Z, or
[ pX remains implicit.
to clap to pat to strike X moving along surface of Z).
to slap to smack to stroke M1 M2 M3 M1 M2
to slam to knock to beat to slam af X X–Z X–Z to stroke Xi pX–Z pX–Z
to tap to hit to smash L1 L2 L3 L1 L2
As in most groups of related verbs, two, [ Establishing state in contact and produc- [ Motion in contact with Z;
three, or more of them may often apply to ing noise, relative force; [ Xi must be conative;
one and the same situation, but, on the other [ Z remains implicit. [ PX remains implicit;
hand, there are situations which can be [ L1–L2 = motion of pX and extension of Z.
M1 M2 M3
express only by one of the verbs. For instance,
to tap Xa pX pX–Z Y M1 M2 M3 M4
if one ship hits an iceberg and another strikes
L1 L2 L1 to beat af X X–Z X X–Z
on iceberg, they are – in practice – doing
[ Establishing and terminating point con- L1 L2 L1 L2
much the same thing; but hitting a match and
striking a match are two very different things; tact; [ Repeatedly establishing and terminating
and this is so, not because the discrepancy [ PX remains implicit; contact, relative force;
between their meanings makes no apprecia- [ Z may remain implicit; [ X may remain implicit.
ble difference in the one situation, whereas in [ (this does not include the 2nd meaning,
M1 M2 M3 M4
the other the difference is of practical impor- i.e., “to tap a barrel”).
to smash af X X–Z p1 p2
tance. M1 M2 M3 L1 L2 Ln Lm
In the formulas given below the following to pat Xi Y Y–Z Y
symbols are used: [ Establishing and terminating contact, rel-
L1 L2 L1
ative force, and change of relation whole/
M1, … Mn – moments of the development; [ Establishing and terminating surface con- part;
Xa, X, Y – the thing which executes or under- tact; [ Z remains implicit;
goes the development: [ X must be conative; [ P1 and p2 are parts of X or of Z;
Xa – if it always finds expression as subject of [ Y remains implicit; [ Ln and Lm are unspecified locations, one
the verb, [ Y or Z must be soft. of which must be different from L2.
X – if it finds expression either as subject or as M1 M2 M3
object of the verb, to smack Xa pX pX–Z pX If we have to translate sentences contain-
Y – if it always finds expression as object of the L1 L2 L/1 ing any one of these verbs into another lan-
verb; guage, we discover that each one “corre-
[ Establishing and terminating surface con-
a – the agent responsible for the development; sponds” to more than one verb in the output
tact and producing noise;
f – the agent employing relative force; language and that the choice will depend on
[ PX remains implicit.
i – the conative agent (i.e., acting with inten- the situation with which the sentence is con-
tion); M1 M2 M3 cerned. Taking only the most current uses and
Z – the thing with which X or Y are put in rela- to knock a X X–Z X leaving aside all figurative, metaphorical, or
tion; L1 L2 Ln idiomatic occurrences, we shall require
L1, L2, … Ln, Lm – different locations, roughly the following group in German:
i.e., result of localization; [ Establishing and terminating contact;
[ X and Z may remain implicit; klatschen tippen treffen
L/1, L/2 … – any location different from klappen antippen streichen
L1, L2, etc… [ X and Z must be hard.
schlagen stossen streichln

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 15

historical radical constructivism

klopfen anstossen prügeln [ establishing and terminating point con- [ Repeated motion in contact, relative force;
hauen krachen zertrümmern tact; [ L1–L2 = motion of pX and extension of Z;
pochen prallen zerschlagen [ pX remains implicit. [ PX remains implicit; X must be conative.
Analysing them in the same manner as we
analysed the English verbs,a first examination M1 M2 M3 M1 M2 M3 M4
has led to the following results: antippen Xi pX pX–Z pX prügeln Xfi Y Y–Z Y Y–Z
L1 L2 Ln L1 L2 L1 L2
M1 M2
[ establishing and terminating point contact; [ Repeated establishment and terminating
klatschen a X X–Z
[ pX remains implicit. contact, relative force;
L1 L2
[ Y remains implicit; X must be conative.
[ Establishing surface contact and produc- M1 M2 M3
ing noise; stossen Xa pX–Z pX–Z Z M1 M2 M3
[ X and Z may remain implicit; Li L2 Ln zertrümmern Xf Y pY1 pY2
[ (this does not include the 2nd meaning, [ Motion in contact, terminating contact; L1 pY12 pY2
i.e., “to gossip”). [ pX remains implicit; [ Changing relation whole/part, relative
[ (the situation often also contains the force;
M1 M2 M3 M4
establishing of contact, but the verb, I [ PY1, pY2 = parts of Y remaining implicit;
klappen a X pX X pX
think, only implies this). [ Y must be explicit.
L1 L2 L1 L3
[ Change of direction by circular motioin M12 M2 M3 M1 M2 M3 M4
(partial) anstossen Xa Xa–Z Xa zerschlagen Xf Y Y–Z p1 p2
[ PX remain implicit. L1 L2 Ln L1 L2 Ln Lm
[ Establishing and terminating contact; [ Establishing contact, relative force, and
M1 M2 M3
[ Z remains implicit. changing relation whole/part;
schlagen af X X–Z X
[ L1–L2 = motion of Y;
L1 L2 Ln M1 M2
krachen + [ p1, p2 = parts of Y or of Z;
[ Establishing and terminating contact, rel- prep. Xf Xf–Z
[ Y or Z remain implicit.
ative force; L1 L2
[ X may remain implicit. [ Establishing contact, relative force, and
producing protracted noise;
M1 M2 M3 M4 These analyses should be considered an
[ X and Z must be explicit.
klopfen a X X–Z X X–Z illustration of method rather than final and
L1 L2 L1 L3 M1 M2 M3 definitive results. Above all I should like to
[ Repeatedly establishing and terminating prallen + an Xf Xf–Z X–Z stress once more that in each case the analysis
contact and producing noise; L1 L2 L/1 has been pushed just so far as to enable us to
[ X and Z may remain implicit. [ Establishing and terminating contact, rel- discriminate the nominatum of the particular
ative force; verb from those of the verbs under consider-
M1 M2 M3 M4 ation. Obviously some of the pieces that are
[ X and Z must be explicit.
hauen afi X pX X pX–Z used here as “elements of meaning” are far
L1 L2 L1 L3 M1 M2 M3 from being elementary, nor are all of them as
[ Establishing contact, relative force, circu- treffen a X Z X–Z clear and unequivocal as they should be (e.g.,
lar motion; L1 L2 L/1 the difference of attributing location to the
[ PX remain implicit; [ Establishing contact; one of two pieces in contact rather than the
[ X must be conative. [ L1–L/1 = motion of X; other). As our vocabulary increases, many of
M1 M2 M3 M4 [ Z may remain implicit. the formulas may have to be extended or cor-
pochen a X X–Z X X–Z rected in order to discriminate the develop-
M1 M2 mental situations represented by them from
L1 L2 L1 L2 streichen a X–Z X–z other similar ones, which, so far, have not
[ Repeatedly establishing and terminating L1 L2 been considered. In other words, the formulas
contact; [ Motion in contact; given here, although representing more or
[ X or Z is soft; [ L1—L2 motion of X and extension of Z; less accurately some characteristics of the
[ X and/or Z may remain implicit. [ Z may remain implicit. nominata of the respective verbs, are as yet
M1 M2 M3 certainly not exhaustive; they should how-
M1 M2 M3 M4
tippen Xi pX pX–Z pX ever, be sufficiently advanced to show that an
streicheln Xi pX–Z pX–Z pX–Z pX–Z
L1 L2 L1 exhaustive analysis of the meaning of words
L1 L2 L1 L2
can be achieved in this way.

16 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

Besides, they show a type of difficulty in require some further German verbs. And the standing a given text. If “to understand” does in
translating (regardless of whether mechanised verb “to hit” is by no means an exception in this fact mean to reconstruct a situation, the ele-
or not) which, hitherto, has certainly been respect. Nearly all the verbs used in everyday ments of which are conveyed by the text, it is
underrated, if not altogether overlooked: the language require multiple output in another clear that we have to refer to the Notional
lack of precise correspondence between words language, because the output language hardly Sphere in order to understand sentences such
of different languages that are often held to be ever contains an exact operational replica of as “John hits Mary,” “John hits the target,” and
“synonymous.” This, of course, is not really a the original verb to be translated. “John hits the bottom of the lift shaft” because
momentous discovery. In every bilingual dic- Hence, when we translate – i.e., when we it is only on the basis of some previous knowl-
tionary one finds thousands of instances of this reconstruct the correlational net indicated by edge about things like Mary, target, or lift shaft
kind and human translators are so thoroughly a particular input text and then express that that we can establish the exact part John plays in
used to them that they rarely register them con- correlational net in another language – the the situation generically conveyed by “to hit.”
sciously. actual meaning of the input verb is only one of Since translating presupposes understand-
The verb “to hit” – to take one from our the factors that we use in the procedure. The ing the text that is to be translated, there would
selection – occurring in the sentence “the car other factor is the complex of indications that seem to be no possibility of bypassing the
hits the wall,” could be translated in German as we glean from the context of the particular problem. On the other hand, however, the
“prallen,” “stossen,” “krachen,” plus a suitable occurrence and, in a wider sense, from all we research on translation has helped a great deal
preposition; in the sentence “Mary hits John” it know as a result of previous experience and to show the real extent of the problem and sug-
would be rendered by “schlagen” or “hauen” learning with regard to the kind of situation gest ways and means towards its final solution.
without a preposition (unless there is some referred to by the input text. This complex of We now know for certain that the quality of
previous indication to the effect that Mary is indications is accumulated in what we call the translation will always be proportional to the
flying through the air or involved with some Notional Sphere. exactness of the semantic analyses and the
other kind of relatively fast locomotion); in the It is important to realise that reference to the comprehensiveness of the network of associa-
sentence “he hits the target” the German verb Notional Sphere is instrumental not only in the tions contained in the Notional Sphere, and
would have to be “treffen,” and there are other process of translation, but already in the much that both factors can be indefinitely refined
uses of “to hit” which, in translation, would more usual and elementary process of under- and improved. [EUR/C-IS/2196/61 f]

A continuing effort in ABOUT THE COMMENTOR Ceccato died in 1997, but in 1987 a follow-
up of the Scuola had been founded by Felice
research and Born in Paris in 1923, Paul Braffort gradu- Accame: La Società di Cultura Metodologico-
development ated at the Sorbonne in both Philosophy Operativa, publishing Quaderni di Methodo-
and Mathematics. He worked with the logia including Ernst’s Il costructivismo radi-
Research by Ceccato and his team was carried French Atomic Energy Commisssion, then cale in 1998, and including with veterans
out at the Centro di Cibernetica e di Attività for Euratom and the European Space such as Vittorio Somenzi, Giuseppe Vaccar-
Linguistiche (Università di Milano). Financ- Agency. Later he joined The University of ino and Ernst von Glasersfeld: a lifelong
ing came from two major contracts running Paris 11 (Orsay), the University of Chicago faithfulness!
simultaneously: one with Euratom (my ini- and the “Collège International de Philoso-
tiative), and one with the Air Research and phie.” He is a member of the OuLiPo
Development Command (contract AF 61 (Ouvroir de Littérature potentielle) References
(052)-212). A comprehensive report of their founded by Raymond Queneau (a Cec-
first achievements was issued on the 4th June cato’s friend) and François Le Lionnais (who Ceccato, S. (1958) The machine that speaks
1960 (RADC-TR-60-18), cf. also Ceccato was one of the organisers of the Namur’s and thinks. In: Actes du 1e Congrès Inter-
(1961). It included, after a major contribution International Congress of Cybernetics. national de Cybernétique, June 1956.
by Ceccato, Ernst’s second paper: Some notes Gauthier-Villars: Paris/Namur , p. 288.
on Inter-Language Correspondence (pp. 117– tific Research. In 1965 a final report was Ceccato, S. (ed.) (1961) Linguistic analysis
129 of the report). This report also contained issued. It included a paper by Ernst von Gla- and programming for mechanical transla-
a smaller, more technical contribution by sersfeld and Paolo Terzi (1965) on automatic tion. Gordon & Breach: New York.
him: Notes concerning output matrices (pp. sentence analysis. Finally Ernst joined the Glasersfeld, E. von & Terzi P. (1965) Automatic
170–174 of the report). Georgia Institute for Research, and later the English sentence analysis. Final Report,
As is well known, after the initial years of University of Massachusetts. AFOSR Grant AF EOAR 64-54. IDAMI
enthusiasm, sponsors became more and more From Ernst’s first papers onwards, Cec- Language Research Section: Milan.
reluctant to contribute any further. I left cato’s influence is evident. And maybe Oper-
Euratom in 1963; IDAMI (Italian Institute of ational Semantics could be considered – even
Engineering Information) took over the con- today – as a good introduction to the Scuola Received: 13 September 2006
tract with the U.S. Air Force Office of Scien- Operativa Italiana’s concepts and methods. Accepted: 27 February 2007

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 17

philosophical-linguistic proto radical constructivism

Ernst von Glasersfeld

and the Scuola Operativa Italiana
Felice Accame A Società di Cultura Metodologico-Operativa <>

Onvonat Glasersfeld
least a couple of occasions, Ernst
tells of the very first Purpose: Appreciating the relationship between Sylvio Ceccato and Ernst von Glasers-
time he and Ceccato serendipitously hap- feld, both as people and in their work. Approach: historical and personal accounts, arche-
pened upon each other and the way their ological approach to written evidence. Findings: Ceccato’s work is introduced to an
relationship developed from that point English speaking audience, and the roots of Glasersfeld’s work in Ceccato’s is explored.
(Glasersfeld 1998b, pp. 15–17; Glasersfeld Flaws in Ceccato’s approach are indicated, together with how Glasersfeld’s work over-
1999, p. 15). “It was just by chance” (Glasers- comes these, specially in language and automatic translation, and what became Radical
feld 1998b, p. 15), at that time, that Ernst Constructivism. Conclusions: Glasersfeld willingly acknowledges Ceccato, who he still
brought his family to Merano, in 1947, refers to as the Master. But Ceccato’s work is little known, specially in the English speak-
where he had been as a child; they were pen- ing world. The introduction, critique and delineation of extension and resolution of Cec-
nyless; and – to save money – they used to cato’s ideas in Glasersfeld’s work is the intended value of the paper.
spend the good season in Val di Sogno, along Key words: philosophy, language, correlational grammar, “Scuola Operativa Italiana,”
the bank of Lake of Garda, camping in a tent; attention/mind, mental operation.
Ernst spent the day typewriting articles and
translations for journals and it was by Thus, Ernst is a member of the group that, “sceptical side of cognitivism.” Ceccato of
chance that a curious lady “with a she-com- in 1960, signed the first Report on the project course claimed he had no notion of what
panion” happened to pass there “on a nice (Ceccato 1961), although, as Ernst himself Varela could have said (although he was lying
day”; she had noticed him during her boat says, “il Maestro” did not like his contribution here, as he was familiar with some of Varela’s
trips and she wondered what the hell he was (Glasersfeld 1998a, p. 18). I remark this detail work4); however, he very well knew that the
doing there. Under such circumstances the as I have the impression that this could be “current use of the word truth concerns the
word “philosophy” worked as the currency considered the first symptom of something way by means of which results (to be pre-
of the linguistic and cultural market: the “going wrong.” When, later on in 1963, Cec- sented) are obtained – a “doing” and “redo-
lady’s son also dealt with “philosophy,” and cato ran short of funds, it was Ernst who ing,” that is, continuously (re-)attempting,
he was Silvio Ceccato. Wittgenstein (whose looked for and found a new source of funding. etc. If results coincide,” Ceccato went on , “one
Tractatus Ceccato had translated in a version And then he tried (his turn now) to repay his has become used, among the public, to talk
that remains unpublished) served as the first debt to Ceccato, inviting him to join the new about truth for words and reality for the
topic of conversation between the two of group: but Ceccato refused. things that are indicated . And experiments
them. Ceccato invited Ernst to join some In May 1993 Ernst was in Milan for one of will be repeated again just to see what hap-
discussions with his friends of that time his short trips. We organized a meeting with pens. Just fancy! The inveterate philosopher
(Albani, Maretti, Morpurgo, Rossi-Landi; some friends for an in depth discussion of cer- keeps on thinking that those words are for
but not Somenzi and not Vaccarino, whom tain aspects of his thinking. The debate that everybody (and particularly for himself) a
Ernst met later) and then asked him to trans- followed was recorded and edited in the way to get closer to the truth-reality not of
late his Teocono and, from 1949, to edit the Working Papers of the Società di Cultura repetition and control, but of transcendence
translations for the new-born review of the Metodologico-Operativa2 No. 41 in 1993 . At a of the undue doubling of the perceived” (Cec-
Scuola Operativa Italiana, “Methodos”1. certain moment, replying to an observation cato 1993).
However, as Ernst had to maintain his fam- of mine, Ernst said that “sometimes one has Ceccato was returning the accusation to
ily, the relation with Ceccato persisted rather the impression, with Varela and with Ceccato, the origin, charging him with all the wicked-
sporadically till 1959, when, to meet the that they know what is the truth.” Ernst ness that (history of philosophy at hand) had
requirements of a contract offered by the US should not have said that! A note from Cec- made it an accusation. It is clear that Ceccato’s
Air Force, Ernst was summoned to the Cen- cato “addressed to Accame-Glasersfeld” came reaction was not justified – it is not by accus-
tre of Cybernetics and Linguistic Activities just the right time, with a title sounding as ing someone of knowing what the truth is that
of the University of Milan, to be part of the severe as an excommunication: “Il lupo perde it can be demonstrated that one has not left
group of researchers invited to apply opera- il pelo…”3. With his note Ceccato indicated the trap of the theoretical-cognitive cage; on
tive theory to the mechanical translation that just on the base of this single statement it the contrary, it is with just such an argument
from one language to another. would have been an evident relapse into the that it can be proved that it is the person react-

18 Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3
philosophical-linguistic proto radical constructivism

ing to the accusation who cannot escape the Later, references to Ernst tend to disappear sentences it to the flames of the methodolog-
trap, leaving the cage behind. Rather, it is even in Ceccato’s letters. Here, above all, it is clear ical-operative hell. As to whether constructiv-
more obvious that Ceccato’s reaction that Ceccato debates the basic theoretical ism were to be more or less “radical,” Ceccato
expresses the way he lived, in the sense of problems of the operative methodology with was really indifferent.
experienced, his relationship with Ernst (and Vittorio Somenzi; Ceccato also informs Vac-
with me as well). carino and – sometimes – even directly argues In my afterword to the Italian edition of Come
A few years later, however – in his C’era with him, but never does he argue with Ernst. ci si inventa [How to invent oneself] (Accame
una volta la filosofia5 , the last book by Cec- For example, in a letter to Vaccarino dated 2001), I remind the reader of further occa-
cato, the relationship has turned even more July 20, 1951, he mentions “the Glasersfelds” sions when Ceccato confirmed his opposition
sour. Ceccato mentions an “English collabo- and he says he “tried to arrange something” to Ernst’s thinking – always assuming that
rator” who “was offered a contract for the with them to stay together. But the reason is Ernst never removed himself from philoso-
mechanical translation” just at the moment that at the time Ceccato is dreaming of Amer- phy. As I see it, Ceccato’s arguments are weak
he was refused funds from the U.S. Govern- ica, and would like to improve his English and a pretext, like those of a teacher wanting
ment for his research. On this occasion, not through long talks with “the Glasersfelds,” to a forever acquiescent and subordinate pupil.
only does Ceccato not mention that Ernst cut a fine figure with a “Rockfeller officer,” the But Ernst’s easy use of electively sceptical phi-
had invited him to be part of the new group coming October. losophers leads one to think that his pars
of research (and Ceccato declined), but also A few days later, on August 5, Ceccato asks destruens is not destruens enough to shift to
he tells the story as though he should have Vaccarino to find a place where “the Glasers- the pars construens, without risking a fall.
excited envy as a consequence of his felds” – as campers looking for beautiful sce-
extraordinary achievements; and he en- nary – “can pitch their tent.” Any further ref- Notwithstanding Ceccato’s assertions, which
riches the story with a faked, and very erences are to Ernst as translator. Ernst never failed to pay attention to, Ernst
pathetic refusal to move to America, where The “Teocono o della via che porta alla ver- always spoke very highly of Ceccato. Ernst
he would have been offered a rainbow lead- ità”6 was first published in the opening num- describes himself as being “mesmerized” by
ing to the proverbial crock of gold (Ceccato ber of Methodos, in 1949. As I observed, with Ceccato, considering him a “Maestro” and –
1997, pp. 68–70). Oliva, this work “achieves a break with (…) with no perfidy I believe – “one of the main
philosophical tradition,” generating a “model innovators in philosophical thought” (Gla-
Ceccato first mentions Ernst, without nam- of philosophical production, not only in its sersfeld 1999, p. 16 and p. 20). Nevertheless,
ing him, in a letter to Vaccarino, dated 31 historical form, but even in the possibilities it he very honestly points his polite finger to
August, 1948. “I found “, he says (and we offers for (self) preservation and (self) per- what he recognizes as the sores in the corpus
know from Ernst that things did not go petuation.” We may thus think of it as “the of Ceccato’s theories. I shall indicate some of
exactly this way), “the suitable translator for essay of the definition of philosophy” these “sores,” in the following sequence.
the review’s English essays. He is an Irish (Accame & Oliva 1971, p. 310). I come to the first point by running over
man, who has been living in Merano for some aspects of a contribution by Ernst to the
years, interested in our researches (he knows Written as a set of rules, or “game,” it was pub- Quinto Intrattenimento Metodologico-
Wittgenstein very well); he can translate from lished several times and in different versions. Operativo11, in Rimini, in 1997. “When I
Italian, French and German to English.” Later At the point where “the players” are defined, worked with Ceccato in the ’50s and ’60s, I
on, on October 4, name and surname are we are warned that there may be a “solitary had several occasions to attend his demon-
revealed, Ernst is still “the most suitable teoconist”7: however, “in order to stir up com- stration concerning the constitution of the
translator I know,” but he has become petition,” the single player “would have to meaning of ‘something,’ or the Latin ‘id,’”
“English” (Ceccato guesses wrong again as assume the others’ play as a part of his own” : Ernst says. “He looked at us as a magician
Ernst was Czech, born from Austrian par- that would be a true game any way. Ceccato would, with his right arm behind his back,
ents), “who studied in Germany” (Ceccato’s says these games usually occur in “schools” and he said ‘Pay attention’. Then he moved his
geographical competence leaves something and “circles.” arm in front of him and he said: ‘Here!’ He was
to be desired: Ernst studied in Switzerland, holding a piece of chalk, or a key; he explained
and later, for a short time, in Vienna), who Well then, if the original version omitted the it was not the specific object that was part of
“married a French woman” (ehermm! the names – left to the reader’s assumed cultural the constitution of the category of “some-
English Isabel), who “has been living in Italy awareness – in a later version of 1988 (the last thing,” but the conjunction of two moments
for four years” and “who is interested in phi- one), in Il perfetto filosofo8 , Ceccato does of attention. He seemed very limpid.”
losophy.” He lives in Merano (Bolzano), via mention a few names: “Platonism, Aristo- So he seemed. “However” (Ernst goes on)
Dante 49: this information is noteworthy as – telism, Thomism9, Marxism,” “Prague Circle” “some years later, when I tried to coordinate
according to Ceccato – it is Vaccarino, as the and “Vienna Circle,” “Instrumentalism, Exis- the teachings of the Scuola Operativa to reach
financer of Methodos, who should contact tentialism, Behaviourism,” followed by “Con- a homogeneous way of thinking, I realized
Ernst and make the necessary agreements. structivism” (Ceccato 1988, p. 85).10 By set- that this mime act – as many others – showed
Some current fees are indicated, so Vaccarino ting constructivism on the same level as other that the Maestro had no doubt that his behav-
can act accordingly. philosophical solutions, Ceccato definitively iour could produce specific mental reactions

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 19

philosophical-linguistic proto radical constructivism

must assume some correspondences of con-

figuration between a category and the things
that are built before that category is applied to
them.” Finally, to him “that correspondence
would be the first type of dependence that
determines what I would call the viability of
categorial applications” (Glasersfeld 1998a,
pp. 11–14).14 As I see it, all this was the sign of
a profound misunderstanding.
To my mind it is definitively legitimate to
extend scientific research to the conditions
under which results were obtained by adopt-
ing exactly the same criteria used to carry on
investigation about those results. The Scuola
Operativa Italiana never meant to elaborate a
new theory of knowledge: rather, it proposed
a series of issues to support the thesis that
many things may go better if one keeps on
enquiring which operations lead to a result;
© Felice Accame the school also built a hypothesis to identify
these operations and a method to describe
From the left: Gianni Sassi, Felice Accame, Marco Sigiani, Gino Di Maggio, Ernst von Glasersfeld. and indicate them. Its programme did not go
Fondazione Mudima, Milan, 1989. beyond this, while nevertheless being aware
that the perceived, the categorized and the
among us observers. The problem, which may trame explains that – no doubt – a habit to semanticised is always the result of someone’s
be unreal but is a problem nevertheless, orig- “work” (in the sense of building percepts) operations (and not a per se result, indepen-
inated in the impression that, although the “along horizontal and vertical lines” influ- dent of anyone). Thus, the extension of the
understandings we produce are products of ences the way of operating; mainly when “the analysis to the conditions is the result of a
our mental operations, they do not seem to be line of the shape suggests or sustains move- choice that can be made or not made, but that
arbitrary.” It is at this point that Ernst reminds ments of this kind.” Generalising – that is, – in any case where a relation is present – will
us of an expression that (even if used by Cec- extending his arguments to the definition of always have reference to the awareness of the
cato in the past) he had retained as “opaque criteria for the “study of dependences” – he actor. From this point of view, the “physical”
and a bit mysterious”: the “dependences” remarks how useful it would be, first at all, to – as the “psychic” or the “mental” – is simply
(Glasersfeld 1997) (a problem that Ceccato make a distinction between “physical pro- the result of a specific way of operating: reality
“had neither time nor perhaps willingness to cesses which take place in the environment in terms of “its viability,” when the result is
explain”; Glasersfeld 1998a, p. 10). and which promote by recourse to a physical embedded in the history of the organ that
Ceccato was happy to ignore this matter mode” the functioning of some organs and does the operating.
completely. In fact, the analytical indexes of “the previous functioning of one or more As a second sore I would mention the con-
his books do not include it. On the contrary, organs, meant as an exciting or inhibiting fac- flict between the genealogical hypotheses of
it is Beltrame (1969, pp. 120–122) who widely tor for the functioning of one or more categories elaborated by Ceccato and by
explains the concept in his Osservazione e organs.” Piaget. Piaget – Ernst says – “realized that all
descrizione meccaniche12, an essay opening Ernst declared himself perfectly persuaded conceptual structures – most of Ceccato’s
the second part of the Corso di linguistica that “the analysis on the basis of moments of “pure categories” resulting from the applica-
operativa13. Beltrame argues that – when attention – invented by Ceccato and devel- tion of a state of attention to itself – were not
elaborating a model of mental activity, we are oped by Vaccarino – is the only acceptable there since the beginning but appeared pro-
not only faced with indicating which opera- one.” However, Ernst was persuaded too that gressively with experience”; this led Piaget to
tions have been carried out, but also “the – at this point – we must say “why some cate- talk about “abstraction,” as well as distin-
dependences of their execution.” gories are constitued and used,” while “other guishing between “empirical abstractions at
For instance, he draws a figure on the page possible ones do not appear.” Indeed, Ernst sensory-motor level” and “reflective abstrac-
and he points out that “with a very high prob- had already been given an answer, but he still tions.” That is the point. Ernst believes that
ability,” should someone be asked about it, he maintained a number of “perplexities.” To the principle may be valid for both types of
would answer it is a “square,” given that any talk about “dependences” implied for him “a abstractions, and for Ceccato’s categories as
other definition such as “four-sided,” “rhom- sort of reference to reality.” Once he had cor- well. So he comes back to the old example: the
bus,” “quadrangle,” “parallelogram,” “shape” rected Ceccato’s theory with Piaget’s, Ernst “something” is obtained after the “pay atten-
and so on, would be equally legitimate. Bel- overcame his perplexities by arguing that “one tion” and “here!” only when the categorial

20 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-linguistic proto radical constructivism

structure is applied to what is presented. With appears when we take into account that Cec- tific community (Glasersfeld 1999, p. 19).
nothing at hand, well, there is no “some- cato’s analysis strictly pertains to the results of That may be. But – as I tried to argue on other
thing.” The reflective abstractions of Piaget attentional combination, since it does not occasions Accame (2002, 1994) – I think that
would be some “configuration structures of take into any consideration the way those the reasons Ceccato’s theory and the whole
mental operations emptied of sensory-motor results interact with the sensory-motor. In Scuola Operativa were not properly recog-
material”: this material – although it has dis- contrast, when Ernst tried to set up an opera- nized are different in nature; these reasons are
appeared – was however necessary to their tive model to include both contexts (while deeply rooted in the traditional thinking of
constitution (Glasersfeld 1998a, pp. 13–14). identifying the categorial steps leading to the our culture as well as in the rationale of pow-
As I see it, the conflict is not worthy of our “number”) the problem of the heterogeneity ers this culture contributes, in one way or
attention, and may not exist at all. The exam- of constitutive elements was given only a another.
ple discussed by Ernst cannot deny that strictly formal solution (Glasersfeld 1981). And so, with the following fourth, and last
humans allow themselves the category of The third sore is nothing but a small – so it seems at least – remark of mine, we
“something” which is not identified with any- imperfection, belonging to others rather than come back to a further sore.
thing specific. Moreover, Ceccato never to Ceccato’s theory itself. It is a question of Ceccato – of course – would remain “one
excluded the evolutive progression of the cat- names. Ceccato’s analysis concerns language among the most relevant innovators of the
egorial set. Ceccato’s analysis addresses the and the mental activity it designates. When philosophical thinking” (and he would not be
hinc et nunc of the actor performing the oper- defining the mental elements used as a link that glad of such an appreciation): but to
ations: according to him, when the actor between one meaning and another, Ceccato understand his value some obstacles have to be
performs the analysis (about the uses the term “correlators”: since they per- removed. The circularity of Ceccato’s defini-
“something,” the “here,” the form the same function at the level of lin- tion of “mind” appears to Ernst as one of the
“now,” the “beginning,” or guistic designation, it follows that the “hardest” obstacles.”We may agree to talk of an
the “end”) the sensory- same term is maintained here too. attentional activity until attention is not
motor, or the perceived, Some mental correlators have corre- applied either to itself or to something else”
is not interacting. The sponding linguistic correlators – but Ceccato says. “When attention is applied to
difference between the not all of them, at least not those itself ” (as we already stated) “it generates an
two points of view obtained by the same method (some activity called categorial; and when it applies
could be resolved by are obtained with a word, for to the functioning of other organs it generates
shifting from a syn- instance, but this may not apply to the activity of presence.”15 But, “mind is the
chronic analysis to a others). Ernst says this provoked a complex of these activities, and it keeps a com-
diachronic analysis. number of misunderstandings: and as plex/elements relation with them. That is a
The conflict dis- a consequence the correlational category in itself ” (Ceccato 1966, p. 22). Thus,
grammar elaborated by mind (or “mind” in quotes as Ernst would pre-
Ceccato was not prop- fer, although, as I see it, there is no difference
erly recognized by the between the two) “is constituted by the catego-
interna- rial activity that is an element of mind itself ”:
tional scien- a circularity that is accepted only with diffi-
culty (Glasersfeld (1999, p. 20). Perhaps I am
not demanding too much, for it is not difficult
for me to accept the fact that if an object to be
analysed is reduced into constitutive elements
(that in principle constitute all analysable
objects), no object may be excluded from the
analysis. It is a tautology. If I reduce everything
surrounding me to atoms – in its etymological
sense – I have no difficulties reducing myself to
atoms too (meaning myself as the actor per-
forming the analysis). Thus – careful! – we do
not exclude the case that the unit of analysis
may be investigated in different ways. The unit
results from a choice made by the analyser, it is
not an independent matter of fact. Thus, Cec-
cato’s “attention” – and the “mind” it consti-
tutes – may be the object of different analyses:
© Felice Accame
the one by the neurobiologist, for instance,
given some declared criteria by which possible

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 21

philosophical-linguistic proto radical constructivism

reciprocal correspondences may be fixed. Put of indices of correlation for each word was too Scienze20. Through this I got in touch again
another way, we could assume that the mind high, especially in relation to available with Ernst. I owed Ernst my very first meeting
may be considered a complex of activities – machines: in this case the ELEA 9003 of with Ceccato, in 1964, but since he had left for
and not that the mind is. In both cases we Olivetti Electronics Division in Milan. At this America, I had lost contact.
would have nothing to do with that delightful point it became necessary to insert the princi- Ernst, however, missed nothing by going to
silliness contained in the statement “mind is ple of re-classification (indexing whole corre- America. He had met Somenzi and Vaccarino
brain”16 (I say delightful since it gives evidence lational structures) and the correlational (Glasersfeld 1999, p. 17) – too late for the first
of the vain materialistic concerns of “trendy” probability (Glasersfeld 1965). With these and too early for the latter, who elaborated his
philosophers). innovations Ernst obtained outcomes rele- own system of semantics only later, proposing
vant in technical terms and meaningful in a form of thinking distinct from Ceccato’s.
Ceccato’s correlational grammar was elabo- terms of models: the amount of human work The Scuola Operativa Italiana was falling to
rated by Ceccato in the face of specific and on mechanical translation was significantly bits all over the place, while Ceccato – unde-
urgent needs. Accordingly, it was little and reduced and, at the same time, the still simply ceived yet impatient for the hinc et nunc – a
poorly developed. In turn, this often “ideal” or too static framework of the correla- few, damned and immediate tokens of
obscurred the model of mental activity and its tional grammar was enriched by evolutive approval – contributed by letting the school
relation with the language which had gener- dynamics17. lose that modest influence and any scientific
ated the correlational grammar itself. That credibility it may have acquired. Very few –
this so is obvious from the rather unpolished From the moment of its birth, the Scuola among those directly concerned – were able to
composition of the “table” of categories: in Operativa Italiana was a strange and understand the countribution that the evolu-
the classification of the implicit mental corre- unhealthy entity: with no premises, no tion of Ernst’s thinking indirectly gave to the
lators; and in the fact that the “mental” was agenda, headed by a Trimurti18 with difficult theoretical nucleus of the Scuola Operativa
limited to “what has been heard about,” as reciprocal relations, and with few disciples. Italiana. Ceccato (as we have seen) excommu-
well as being represented with linguistic des- Some of the disciples soon took flight and a nicated him; Vaccarino was much too buried
ignations and formalisations. Further, at the few were rejected, a school that was denied, in his own system to recognise any alternative
time, there were research projects and con- even by its inventor, a school with no real and or different research line; but Somenzi, not-
tracts waiting to be fulfilled. Like heaven, the- genuinely well-formulated theory. Perhaps I withstanding his suspicious doubts on “con-
ory could wait. But, when Ernst was faced tried too hard, caring for the Scuola, eventu- structivism,” (and to be honest, also, to some
with the problem of automatic translation ally arriving at the conclusion that the main extent, Rossi-Landi) did not miss the huge rel-
again, for the second time, he succeeded in theoretical responsibilities should have been evance of Ernst’s experimentation with the
applying relevant and meaningful changes to shared between Ceccato and Somenzi19, with chimpanzee Lana, so strongly opposed by the
the analytical framework. His experience with Vaccarino deserving an Academy Award for obscurantist Chomsky and the surrounding
Ceccato and with the Centre of Cybernetics patience – while the clever Rossi-Landi soon Chomskians. The chimpanzee was committed
and Linguistic Activities of University of took flight and did little but look after his own to communicate to humans (via computer) by
Milan was over by that time, and he had interests (Accame 1987). Others – I name means of a language that – a frequently forgot-
started a collaboration with Jehane Burns and Barosso and Beltrame – elaborated the basic ten critical detail – was built by Ernst on the
Pier Paolo Pisani at Idami, also in Milan. theoretical framework while either reaching a basis of correlational grammar (Somenzi 1987
Thanks to his Multistore (applied to the sceptic-like disengagement (Barosso) or ren- and afterword to Premack 1978).
English language) the operative economy ovating its methodological perspectives (Bel- I have to apologize to Ernst, who knew me
became a criterion of correlational grammar. trame). For some years I wasted my time and as a presumptuous kid. I owe him memories
I will try to explain at least its starting point: energies trying to grant the Scuola Operativa of moments that – when happening – I
in correlational syntax a sequence of indexes Italiana at least some sort of collective dimen- wished could last forever: a discussion on the
was assigned to each word; and any index rep- sion and some rules of correct communica- methodology of literary critics (Glasersfeld
resented a connecting potential and it fulfilled tion. Notwithstanding all the support from 1968; the themes were more or less those
a specific relation with another word or sen- Somenzi and Vaccarino – in the face of Cec- ones), Isabel crushing a nut and offering it to
tence. The connection took place on the basis cato’s faked indifference – I achieved little: an me, Sandra on the cover of Gli effimeri (S. von
of the complementarity of indices (a way of association, the Società di Cultura Metodolog- Glasersfeld 1964)21, some dinners – with
ratifying compatibility) so as to avoid a priori ica-Operativa; a new journal – Methodologia – Charlotte, with Bruna Zonta, with my wife
linguistic combinations that could be gram- as the inheritance of Methodos; five symposia Anna – a painting by her enriching the cover
matically correct, but wrong when reaching and some public debates; in 1989 a newsletter, of the Italian edition of Come ci si inventa, the
the semantic level, whenever a human inter- which still survives. This effort of mine walks along the beach at Rimini, in September
vention was needed to “adjust” the automatic started in 1985, with the preparation of the 1997, at nightfall.
result. Notwithstanding, the average number few booklets of the Critica sociale delle

22 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-linguistic proto radical constructivism

Notes 10. This version was enriched by embarass- Preserver/Indwelling-life) and Shiva (the
ing elements of occasional chronicle, Transformer-Destroyer/Creator).
1. And also for the translation of Il linguag- mainly inaccurate, and by a very cultivat- 19. Someone may find this observation
gio con la tabella di Ceccatieff (The Lan- ed sense of persecution. Even the version strange. But I am convinced about that:
guage with Ceccatieff’s Table) [translator], title – Hide and seek – is not suitable for the role of Vittorio Somenzi was promi-
the first book by Ceccato, published in the original. Who is not interested in the nent in the early phases of the Scuola Op-
Italian and English by Hermann & Co. in narrative forms of someone frustrated erativa Italiana. His voluntary exil was
Paris in 1951. and unsuccessful (preferring to aim at provoked by unresolvable theoretical
2. The Society of Methodological-Operative learning tools letting him free from phi- frictions with Ceccato – frictions that of
Culture [translator]. losophy) would had better forget this ver- course also invested the ethical sphere.
3. “The wolf looses its sheep’s clothing” sion. But Somenzi never lost any hope to see
[translator]. 11. Fifth Methodological-operative meeting his methodological-operative principles
4. We had talked together about Autopoiesi [translator]. recognized and developed. On the base of
e cognizione written by Varela and Hum- 12. Mechanical Observation and Description unedited sources I sustained this thesis in
berto Maturana. [translator]. an essay I delivered to Claudio Del Bello
5. Once upon a Time Philosophy [transla- 13. Course of operative linguistics [translator]. in summer 2005, in order to assist the
tor]. 14. Where Ernst says “configuration,” he publication of a book by Somenzi, Come
6. The Teocono or The Way to The Truth complains about the missing Italian word non detto, which he gave us some time be-
[translator]. for “pattern.” fore his death.
7. A teoconist is presumably a solitary play- 15. The original Italian is attività presenzia- 20. Social Critics of Sciences [translator].
er of the game developed in Teocono trice [translator]. 21. The book is dedicated “to Ernst and to Is-
[translator]. 16. On the presumed problem of circularity abel.” I can remember it.
8. The Perfect Philosopher [translator]. in Ceccatos’s theory see Panetta (1999),
9. [Editors’ and translators’ comment:] Th- pp. 142–145.
omism is the philosophical school that 17. The development of the Multistore pro-
followed in the legacy of Thomas Aquinas gram made a detailed analysis of the cor- ABOUT THE AUTHOR
(1224/1225–1274). The word comes relators necessary, which in fact was to be
from the name of its originator, scholastic Ernst’s interest in the following years. See Felice Accame was born in 1945 in Varese.
philosopher and theologist, whose sum- Glasersfeld (1998), p. 10. He is teaching communication theory at the
mary work is the Summa Theologiae. 18. [Editors’ and translators’ comment:] In Technical Center of Coverciano. Accame is
Aquinas worked to create a philosophical some schools of Hinduism, the Trimurti president of the Society of Methodological-
system which integrated Christian doc- (or the Hindu trinity) is a concept that Operative Culture. Since 1985 together
trine with elements taken from the phi- holds that God has three aspects, which with Carlo Oliva he moderates the trans-
losophy of Aristotle. Aquinas is generally are only different forms of the same one mission “Hunting to the daily ideology” of
agreed to have moved the focus of Scho- God. The three aspects of God are Brah- the Popular Radio of Milan.
lastic philosophy from Plato to Aristotle . ma (the Source/Creator),Vishnu (the

References Accame, F. & Oliva, C. (1971) Prefazione Rome, Bari.

all’Antologia di Methodos. Pensiero e Lin- Ceccato, S. (1993) Reumatismi delle spugne a
Accame, F. (1987) Percorsi metodologico- guaggio in operazioni 2(7–8): 280–289. priori e porpore a posteriori. Methodolo-
operativi nell’opera di Rossi-Landi. Il Pro- Beltrame, R. (1969) Osservazione e descriz- gia Working Papers 42.
tagora XXVII: 11–12. ione meccaniche. In: Ceccato, S. (ed.) Ceccato, S. (1997) C’era una volta la filosofia.
Accame, F. (1994) L’individuazione e la desig- Corso di linguistica operativa. Longanesi: Spirali: Milan.
nazione dell’attività mentale. Espansione: Milan, pp. 115–139. Glasersfeld, E. von (1965) Multistore: Un pro-
Rome. Ceccato, S. (ed.) (1961) Mechanical Transla- cedimento per l’analisi correlazionale
Accame, F. (2001) Afterword. In Foerster, H. tion: The correlational approach. Gordon dell’inglese. Automazione e automatismi
von & Glasersfeld, E. von (2001) Come ci and Breach: New York. Italian original 9(2): 5–28.
si inventa. Odradek: Rome, pp. 179–186. published in 1960. Glasersfeld, E. von (1968) Alla ricerca di dati
Accame, F. (2002) La funzione ideologica Ceccato, S. (1966) Un tecnico fra i filosofi, II precisi. Nuovo 75(2): 36–40.
delle teorie della conoscenza. Spirali: vol. Marsilio: Padova. Glasersfeld, E. von (1981) An attentional
Milan. Ceccato, S. (1988) Il perfetto filosofo. Laterza: model for the conceptual construction of

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 23

philosophical-linguistic proto radical constructivism

units and number, in Journal for Research English original: Glasersfeld, E. von Premack, A. J. (1978) Perché gli scimpanzé
in Mathematics Education 12(2): 83–94. (1995) Radical constructivism. Falmer possono leggere. Armando: Rome.
Glasersfeld, E. von (1997) Lotta con una vec- Press: London. Somenzi, V. (1987) Le obiezioni a Von
chia perplessità. Relazione al Quinto Glasersfeld, E. von (1999) Omaggio al Mae- Glasersfeld. Alfabeta 102.
Intrattenimento Metodologico-Opera- stro. Quaderni di Methodologia 7: 15–21.
tivo, Rimini. Glasersfeld, S. von (1964) Gli effimeri. Lerici: Translated by Silvia Pizzocaro
Glasersfeld, E. von (1998a) Cronaca di cons- Milan. and Ranulph Glanville
apevolezza operativa personale. Quaderni Panetta, M. (1999) Il rapporto tra pensiero e
di Methodologia 5: 9–16. linguaggio nella filosofia analitica e nella Received: 27 August 2006
Glasersfeld, E. von (1998b) Il costruttivismo tecnica operativa di Ceccato. Quaderni di Accepted: 5 February 2007
radicale. Società Stampa Sportiva: Rome. Methodologia 7: 121–145. Updated: 23 April 2007

24 Constructivist Foundations
Cognitive-psychological & historical radical constructivism

The Theoretical Environment

around 1965
Renzo Beltrame A National Research Council of Italy <>

observe’ (realism). Observation thus

Purpose: Ernst von Glasersfeld has actively contributed to the development of the ideas introduced is precisely the symbolizatum
of the Scuola Operativa Italiana (SOI) from 1947.The paper outlines the theoretical status of ‘knowing’.”
of the SOI research around 1965, which also marks the conclusion of an important phase We can find many rewordings by Ceccato
of this development. The aim is to contribute to better understanding of the continuity of this criticism, frequently in Italian and
of Glasersfeld’s research. Key words: Cognition, Italian Operational School, Ceccato. mainly with reference to perception (Ceccato
1962, 1965, 1967a, b). He also wrote a brief,
historical sketch in a satirical tone, which had

T heclusion
years around 1965 marked the con-
of an important phase in the
point of this criticism was the erroneous way
of defining knowing in terms of a relationship
an English version as well (Ceccato 1949).
The knowing activity was thought of as a
development of the ideas of the Scuola Oper- between two entities rather than as a constitu- flow of elementary mental operations, which
ativa Italiana (SOI).1 Glasersfeld had actively tive activity that starts from scratch. Since the constitutes a known thing when a sequence of
participated in this fascinating development two elements of a relation must be mentally these operations is thought as a result. An
starting from 1947 (Glasersfeld 1999). More- constructed before putting them into rela- example of the transition from the criticism
over, during the first half of the sixties he was tionship, knowledge would be introduced as a to this constructive approach, can be found in
involved full-time in a Mechanical Transla- definiens into its definition. the following passage (Ceccato 1963, pp. 10–
tion project at the Centro di Cibernetica e di Let me quote an early formulation of this 11):
Attività Linguistiche of the University of criticism (Ceccato 1951, p. 21): “[T]hings […] were at first […] distorted
Milan; this project was an important test of “[O]bserver, observatum, observation are by a speculative tradition […] which
the new ideas. born together; the observer and the obser- taught that the brain should be considered
Around 1965, Ceccato had completed his vatum, or one of the two, are not born not in terms of organs and their functions,
critical revision of the historical theories of before and observation afterwards. But but as the passive mirror of the events
knowledge, and he had also proposed a few this operational awareness has been lack- around it. These events were to be found
elementary operations to describe mental ing, and at least three thousand years of inside the brain as duplicates of things out-
activity with a completely constructive con- philosophical and scientific work were ori- side it. […] A determining factor [in the
structivist approach. The use of these new ented by this lack. One began by maintain- discovering of the error] was the observa-
tools led all of us in Ceccato’s team to measure ing that observer and observatum subsist tion that, of a thing which remains the
the deep and subtle dependence of mental before and independently from observa- same in its form and material, we often
activity on context, and this awareness would tion, each as such in itself. One executes, speak in different and even contradictory
strongly contribute to differentiating the that is to say, the operation of: 4K) Dou- ways. We may speak of a cup, for instance,
research lines of the SOI components. bling the observer into ‘observer as such in as a part (in relation to the tea service) and
Glasersfeld fully accepted this depen- itself, but awaiting to observe’ and yet as a whole” (in relation to its handle,
dence: as his idea of viability would show, as ‘observer who observes,’ and the observa- rim, and so on). We may regard a finger-
well as his experiments on learning with the tum into ‘observatum as such in itself, but nail as the beginning of the finger, or as its
linguistic chimpanzees. I worked at the Cen- awaiting to be observed’ and ‘observed end. […] We concluded […] that at least
tro di Cibernetica during those years, and I observatum.’ This way of operating is some of the things which we designate by
think it is interesting to recall the attainments called ‘passivism.’ And then: 5K) One adds words are quite independent of the bodies
that we considered stable at that time, and the observation, more or less as activity of the in our environment, and cannot thus rep-
awareness that we had on the open problems. observer on the observata, activity that resent a duplication; instead, they arise
I shall refer to Ceccato’s papers, which are the transforms the observata from ‘observata from operations which we ourselves per-
source of the theoretical framework of the awaiting to be observed’ into ‘observed form.”
whole team. observata’ (idealism), or as activity of the Among the elementary operations, a
Ceccato concluded the revision of the his- observata on the observers, activity that selective function of attention was intro-
torical theories of knowledge with a radical transforms the observers from ‘observers duced in a way that can be traced back to W.
criticism of the notion of knowing. The main awaiting to observe’ into ‘observers who James’ The Principles of Psychology (James

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 25
Cognitive-psychological & historical radical constructivism

1890). Here I offer a short quotation (Cec- binary operator of which the arguments activity of the person who predicts or
cato 1964a, p. 8): are a single S or a combination of S’s: oper- observes them, the scheme of the mental
“The application of the attention, besides ation D2 consisting of memorizing and activity organically included a constraint that
bringing to mind the functioning of the taking up one S or a combination of S’s).” arises from our common experience. Such an
other organs, isolates a ‘tantum’ of it. […] However, we need a further rule, such as: early inclusion was determinant in preventing
In that they are results of this paying of (4) Y is a D3 YaYb (where D3 represents the the SOI approach from becoming a new type
attention, leaving aside the question ‘what binary operator of which the arguments Ya of mentalism.
is the functioning organ and the ‘tantum’ and Yb are type (3) Ys) that is mentioned in The previous mental constructs were
of functioning,’ let us give these results the the comment on rule (3). thought to imply the sensory memory: that is,
name ‘praesentiata’.” Such kinds of structures were proposed to they never span above 1–2 seconds. A further
Clearly, a physiological counterpart of the describe both simple mental constructs (e.g., elementary activity was introduced to
“praesentiata” is described. However, it was “singular,” “plural,” “some,” “other,” “begin,” describe a mental activity that spans over
not stressed, here and in other places, that “end,” etc.), and more complex structures longer intervals of time: for instance, linguis-
such a description had the methodological that had strong methodological relevance tic activity (Ceccato 1964a, pp. 13–15):
character of a definition. (e.g., the causal schemes, the times, modes, “A second more comprehensive modulus
About fragmentation, we find (Ceccato and aspects of verbs, etc.), although the latter is the substitutive one, characterized by
1967a, p. 200):2 were described with a coarser granularity. making two units of the first degree [the
“As to the functioning of the organs which Mixed constructs were nevertheless pro- additive previous one] follow one another
the attention makes present and breaks posed, in which mental categories were asso- through a unit, it too of the first degree,
into fragments, a list of these elements as ciated with constructs that involve praesenti- which constitutes the relationship
well would be indispensable in order to see ata. Among them, let me quote a proposal for between them. This happens in that (a) the
with what stones the building of the mind the mental activity by which we think of phys- unit used as the first term of the relation-
has been constructed. […] This list already ical things and their mutual interactions ship, is maintained once it is completed,
exists more or less, even if it is rather (Ceccato 1967a, p. 201): (b) in regard to this maintained unit, the
imprecise and oscillating, when one gath- “[L]et us add the temporal and spatial mental category of relationship comes
ers together, in dictionaries for example, localization of the represented thing or of about, and (c) this too, once completed, is
the names both of colors, flavors, […] and the perceived thing. We obtain the possi- maintained upon the addition of the sec-
those of the types of lines and surfaces into bility of pairing with these, respectively, ond term of the relationship. […]
which various figures can be broken down, another represented or perceived thing in “In order to avoid confusion between this
and which correspond to our movements. temporal or spatial relationship, provided kind of relationship, of cuts and sutures of
[…] In order to ensure that the picture is that the representative or perceptive oper- an attentional sort, and the relationships
complete, another path has been chosen, ating be repeated […] We have thus oper- due to physical nature, we propose to
that of seeking to pair up these elements ated enough to reach the psychical and the speak of correlators for the relationships,
with physical situations according to the physical; the first in that objectifying has of correlata for the terms of the relation-
stimulus-response relationship, […] been performed at least twice, temporally ship, of correlational structure for the
therefore introducing the order of the localizing the results and putting them results of correlating […]
numeric series; whereas forms are treated into relationship with each other; the sec- “The comprehensiveness of this modulus
by analytic geometry.” ond because the results put in relationship of construction is given by the fact that an
The things that were called attentional with each other have been localized spa- entire structure can act as an element in a
structures, or mental categories, are probably tially. One should not expect to find those new structure, giving rise to more or less
the most original idea in the mental activity results of objectifying operation always extended correlational nets. […] correla-
scheme. Let me quote a short, formal presen- taken as two distinct things, in as much as tional nets […] rarely go above 6–7 sec-
tation of these mental constructs from Cec- it is possible to link them respectively with onds.”
cato (1967a, p. 199): duration and with extension, that is to The following graphic representation was
“[W]e give the various attentional struc- consider them as the same thing. […] In generally used for the correlation:
tures, which we will call Y, a formal system- any case, when more than one physical or
atization according to the widely used psychical construction is put into play, the correlator
notation of the Warsaw School: (1) Y is an relationships which they have between
S (where S represents a state of attention). them will no longer be our mental history, 1st correlatum 2nd correlatum
(2) Y is a D1SS (where D1 represents the but theirs.”
binary operator of which the S’s are the This idea had a great methodological rele- Nested correlations were used to represent
arguments: operation D1 consisting in vance, because it outlined that physical things correlational nets.
maintaining a first state of attention when were thought of as being subject and objects Another elementary operation was intro-
a second is added). (3) Y is a D2S D1SS or of their mutual interactions. Since these inter- duced to extend the spanning of the correla-
a D2D1SS S (where D2 represents the actions are independent from the mental tional nets beyond 6–7 seconds. However, it

26 Constructivist Foundations
Cognitive-psychological & historical radical constructivism

was described as function (Ceccato 1967a p. context of each word broadens and makes The general problem of describing a men-
206): any doubt difficult.” tal activity that has the suitable dependence
“The correlational procedure could not Alternative ways of understanding a sen- on the context is still open; and the sentence
however be prolonged beyond six or tence are most always possible. Different pre- “Furthermore, it makes a propulsive force of
seven seconds, without the first elements vious knowledge, and the pressure of time it; it makes it act on the operating under way”
being inevitably lost. Our memory, as a constraints, make each alternative more or simply makes claims for a dynamics of mental
holding of presence, would not allow it. less probable. activity.
That which permits us to continue the We met the same problem in studying The question “When does a person speak
correlational net is another of the func- visual perception (Ceccato 1965, pp. 20–21): or write a given phrase?” received an intial
tions of the memory […], the summariz- “We know […] that by showing a certain response: “When the person has made the
ing one, with which it is possible to take thing we will not necessarily obtain the related set of mental operations,” which
up in condensed form the thought which same response from everyone, […] We began to be felt as a mere rewording of the
has already been performed; a function encounter this relative liberty on the plane original question, although it implied a radi-
which in language for the most part is of the most elementary perception. […] cally new approach. The question began to be
designated with pronouns: ‘Mario and The liberty of the response is even greater substituted by “When will a person perform a
Luigi went happily on their brand-new when observation and description regard given set of mental operations?,” which
bicycles. They …’” an event.” requires changing from a descriptive
Although correlation and correlational The physical situation that acts as stimulus approach to mental activity to a predictive
net were introduced with a general valence, does not determine the perceptual result: here one. Two factors, however, hindered the free
they were mainly used with reference to lan- too, alternatives are always possible beyond use of the predictive approach.
guage and they had a central role in the the classical alternating figures of psychology. The first factor was a side effect of the stud-
Mechanical Translation project (Ceccato The pressure of time constraints, and the pre- ies on Mechanical Translation. In MT, we start
1964b). In a linguistic context, conjunctions, vious mental activity still make each alterna- from a written text and we deal with the activ-
prepositions (Glasersfeld 1965), and the syn- tive more or less probable. ity of understanding it. The constitutive activ-
tactic categories nearly always designate cor- We were fully aware that neither a physio- ity of the various designata is assumed to be
relators; pronouns usually involve a summa- logical approach to a theory of human behav- carried out, and low or no interest arises in
rizing activity; and punctuation and articles ior, nor an anthropological one, offered a reli- predicting the occurrence of the mental activ-
(Glasersfeld 1963) frequently acquire this last able solution to the problem. The following ity.
function as well. In this theoretical frame- way of describing memory functions offers a The people in the SOI were sufficiently
work, the linguistic activity took the follow- sample of that awareness (Ceccato 1967a, p. mindful of avoiding the Platonism that is
ing meaning (Ceccato 1967a, p. 214): 202): implicit in freezing a number of mental con-
“Designating, that is, expressing and “Let us […] consider the various functions structs by fixing a description of their consti-
understanding, means connecting the which memory performs. It can keep tutive activity. They used the descriptive
functioning of the hearing and voice present that which has just barely been approach in education, or in increasing our
organs with the functioning of the of the done (that is, memory as the continuation consciousness about mental constructs that
organs of thought and its contents.” of presence, such as eidetic images); it can have a strong methodological impact, and the
Here, “thought” has the technical mean- make present again that which has been development of a dynamics of mental activity
ing of correlational net. We have to read the absent (that is, memory as retrieval). was rather slow.
sentence as saying that we speak of designat- Then, it operates on the past not only pas- The second factor was related to a charac-
ing when a connection occurs between the sively, but also selectively and through teristic of the organ-function relationship.
two orders of functioning; otherwise, we association (that is, memory as elabora- This relation was proposed as link between
would contradict the principle that a physical tion, as creation), but above all, it operates the mental activity and its realization in the
process involves only physical things. on the past by condensing it, by sum- biological architecture. However, we soon
A problem clearly arose. The research on marizing it. Furthermore, it makes a pro- became aware of the need to rehash deeply the
Mechanical Translation showed that, in pulsive force of it; it makes it act on the notion of organism that we could extrapolate
modeling what we considered a suitable operating under way. Finally, memory can from our machines. Let me quote an early
understanding of the current sentence, the make present not only that which has example of this awareness (Ceccato 1962,
main difficulty was to describe and use the already been made present by the atten- pp. 40–41):3
knowledge that we had acquired from the tion, but also, although to a lesser degree, “…sotto l’aspetto modellistico valga un
previous sentences (Ceccato 1964a, 1967b, the operating of organs which has passed avvertimento. La distinzione in organi e
p. 19): unnoticed. In this way, memory and atten- funzioni (come di solito è intesa e, certa-
“Whoever follows a speech, or reads a text, tion complement each other, and the mente, come viene applicata quando ci si
carries into each successive sentence that attention has before it a field that is broad- riferisce alle macchine) porta ad attribuire
which he had learned in the preceding ened from the simple present to include ogni cambiamento al funzionamento degli
one. […] as the discourse progresses, the our whole life.” organi, mentre questi rimarrebbero uguali.

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 27

Cognitive-psychological & historical radical constructivism

[…] Ma nell’uomo non è da supporre che organ-function scheme useless. A one-to-one Through his research on learning and on
le cose stiano in questi termini. […] correspondence between the elementary the criteria for the relevance of mental con-
Nell’uomo […] gli organi svolgono sì fun- mental activities and physical processes is a structs, Glasersfeld thus continued his partic-
zioni cicliche; ma essi sono soggetti anche better solution, and the dynamics of the men- ipation in the pioneering phase of the SOI,
ad una funzione monotonica, che forse è tal activity follow from the dynamics of the facing one of the main problems that this first
tutt’uno con ciò che chiamiamo memoria, physical architecture that realizes it. phase left open.
e che è certo una caratteristica del materiale Unfortunately, biology inherited an exten-
operante proprio dei viventi.” sive use of the organ-function scheme; a deep ABOUT THE AUTHOR
We might model learning, and more gen- transformation of the experimental tech-
erally individual differences, through a mono- niques is necessary to pass from this scheme Renzo Beltrame is Senior Research Associ-
tonic function of the organs, which would also to the interactor-interaction scheme, which is ate at the Pisa Research Area of the
account for different personal histories. How- not affected by the previous difficulties. Biol- National Research Council of Italy. He has
ever, a monotonic function introduces a vari- ogy thus did not give the help that we had been at the National Research Council of
able way of functioning with the related phys- planned to develop a dynamics of mental Italy since 1962. From 1960 to 1976 he was
ical changes in the organs, and this makes the activity. in Ceccato’s team.

Notes References tematics. Information Storage and

Retrieval 3: 193–214.
1. We do not have a standard English trans- Ceccato, S. (1949) Il teocono. Methodos 1(1): Ceccato, S. (1967b) Correlational analysis and
lation of SOI. “Italian Operational 34–54. mechanical translation. In: Both, A. (ed.)
School” seems sufficiently clear to me. Ceccato, S. (1951) Il linguaggio con la tabella Progress in machine translation. North
Bibliographies of Ceccato and of other di Ceccatieff. Actualités Scientifiques et Holland: Amsterdam, pp. 77–136.
persons who contributed to the SOI can be Industrielles. Hermann & Cie: Paris. Glasersfeld, E. von (1963) The functions of the
found at: Ceccato, S. (1962) La macchina che osserva e articles in English. Technical report at Cen-
biblio.htm descrive. La Ricerca Scientifica 32: 37–58. tro di Cibernetica e di Attività Linguistiche
2. Here and in the following, I quote a paper Ceccato, S. (ed.) (1963) Mechanical transla- Università degli Studi di Milano.
of 1967, which has a clear conciseness. tion: The correlation solution. Technical Glasersfeld, E. von (1965) An approach to the
3. I quote this Italian text because it appeared report at Centro di Cibernetica e di Attiv- semantics of prepositions. In: Josselson, H.
very early, and I offer here an English re- ità Linguistiche Università degli Studi di (ed.) Proceedings of Las Vegas conference
wording: “Our usual distinction between Milano. on computer-related semantic analysis
organs and functions (certainly when we Ceccato, S. (1964a) Correlational analysis and XIII. Wayne State University: Detroit MI,
apply it to our machines) assigns the mechanical translation. Technical report at pp. 1–24.
changes to the way of functioning of the Centro di Cibernetica e di Attività Linguis- Glasersfeld, E. von (1999) Omaggio al mae-
organs, and leaves the organs un- tiche Università degli Studi di Milano. stro. Quaderni di Methodologia 7: 15–21.
changed… However we cannot assume Ceccato, S. (1964b) Automatic translation of James, W. (1950) The principles of psychol-
that this scheme holds for humans. In hu- languages. Information Storage and ogy. Dover: New York. Originally pub-
mans… the organs perform cyclic func- Retrieval 2: 105–158. lished in 1890.
tions, but they also have a monotonic Ceccato, S. (1965) A model of the mind. In:
function, which we can probably identify Caianiello, E. (ed.) Cybernetics of neural
with memory, and that is certainly a char- processes. CNR: Rome, pp. 21–79. Received: 20 June 2006
acteristic of the biological material.” Ceccato, S. (1967a) Concepts for a New Sys- Accepted: 24 January 2007

28 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

Ernst von Glasersfeld’s Contributions

to the LANA Project
Duane M. Rumbaugh and Charles Bell A Great Ape Trust of Iowa (USA) <>

called that because they were to be taught in

E rnst von Glasersfeld’s contributions to
the LANA Project (the Language Ana-
baugh (2004). Ernst’s sterling contributions
are documented in his two chapters (von Gla- specific detail for use by Lana to obtain a vari-
logue Project) were very important to its sersfeld 1977a, b) in a book published in 1977 ety of incentives and states – foods and drinks
seven years of success, 1971–1977, during with the title Language Learning by a Chim- (e.g., chow, banana, candies, cabbage, bread,
which the effort was led by the senior author panzee. The LANA Project (Rumbaugh 1977). orange, etc.), states of entertainment and
of this paper, supported by NICHD 06016 The proposal captured the interest of the curiosity (e.g., a movie, music, making a win-
and 38051. Indeed, his contributions have NIH and resulted in an award of funds to sup- dow open), and social company. The lexicon
helped perpetuate research into the language port the research. The National Institute of would consist of geometric symbols serving
skills of apes and sea mammals to this day. Child Health (NICHD) funded the award in as words. Each word would be embossed on a
Ernst was a member of the original team of 1971, a reflection of their keen interest in the Lucite key for the subject’s use on the key-
1970 that formulated the proposal to the parameters of language acquisition. In the board to be monitored by a computer.
National Institutes of Health for four years’ proposal we anticipated that, to the degree the It was Ernst who suggested that the geo-
funding to develop a computer-monitored computer-monitored system and methods of metric symbols that we designed to function
keyboard-situation appropriate to research inquiry led to the definition of language skills as words might be called lexigrams. The
on the language skills of which the great apes in a young ape, we might have the potential group readily accepted that term for them and
might be capable. Those skills had a 50-year for better understanding of and resolving bar- it lives to this dayin language research projects
history of interest even at the time the NIH riers to language acquisition by children and at the Language Research Center of Georgia
proposal was prepared. A recent survey of adults challenged by the constraints of mental State University and the Great Ape Trust of
apes’ skills from their historic roots is the retardation and other causes of brain damage. Iowa.
focus of a recent book by Hillix and Rum- Ernst’s several contributions included the Although Ernst’s grammar for the system
writing of an interpretive correlational gram- was relatively fixed in its structure, in that a
ABOUT THE AUTHORS mar that would evaluate the structural cor- number of stock sentences entailed only the
rectness of statements formulated by a subject substitution of one word (e.g., Please
Duane M. Rumbaugh was born in Maynard, using the system, monitored by a PDP8 com- machine give piece of (insert cabbage, chow,
IA, 1929, and received his Ph.D. from the puter with only about 8 kilobytes of memory. apple, and so on here; Please machine make
University of Colorado in general-experi- It was programmed by Ernst and his col- (insert music, slide, or movie here; and so on),
mental psychology in 1955. He then taught league, Pier Pisani. it afforded flexible use of words between cat-
at San Diego State College for 15 years, Both Ernst and Pier were with of the Uni- egories as well. In brief, it had some degree of
where he also research primates' learning versity of Georgia. Other team members were flexibility.
abilities at the San Diego Zoo. In 1969, he Josephine V. Brown (developmental psychol- Ernst recommended that we call the
became Chief of Behavior at the Yerkes Pri- ogist), Susan Essock (experimental psycholo- grammar Yerkish in honor of Robert M.
mate Center of Emory University, Atlanta, gist) and Duane M. Rumbaugh (general- Yerkes, the early primatologist of Yale Uni-
GA, where, with a close colleague and engi- experimental and project director), all with versity who founded the laboratory that
neer, Harold Warner, the LANA chimpanzee Georgia State University; the late Harold eventually carried his name. (The early his-
language project was conceived and devel- Warner (biomedical engineer), the late Tim- tory of the laboratory was at Yale University
oped. He directed the project, with NICHD othy V. Gill (behavioral research technician), and then in Orange Park, Florida. In the
support, initially awarded in 1971. After a and Charles Bell (electronics technician), all 1960s it was moved to Atlanta, Georgia,
long career with Georgia State University, three with the then-named Yerkes Regional where Emory University served as its spon-
also in Atlanta, Rumbaugh retired in 2000. Primate Research Center of Emory Univer- sor.) His recommendation was accepted.
He now is Lead Scientist Emeritus of the sity. Their individual roles and collective suc- The grant that supported the LANA Project
Great Ape Trust of Iowa. cess with our first ape subject, the chimpanzee was awarded to the Yerkes Regional Primate
Charles Bell has his degree in electronics (Pan troglodytes), Lana, are recounted in the Research Center (now known as the Yerkes
engineering. He very ably built and main- above referenced book on the project. National Primate Research Center) in
tained the computer-monitored keyboard. Collectively, we agreed that our ape should Atlanta, Georgia. The project was conducted
learn a number of stock sentences. They were at the Yerkes Center.

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 29
historical radical constructivism

© Duane Rumbaugh

Figure 1:The chimpanzee Lana in the experimental chamber.

For Ernst, language required a lexicon, dis- mates, unfamiliar primates, nonprimates, another example was as in predication, as
placement (e.g., symbolic function), and inanimate actors, absolute fixtures (cage, “Banana black.”
grammar. Ernst held that the lexigrams piano, room), relative fixtures (window, Yerkish had only an active voice, and three
needed to be artificial and not iconic represen- door), transferable (balls, etc.), parts of the moods: interrogative, indicative, and impera-
tations of things and events in Lana’s experi- body, edible units locational prepositions (in, tive. The parser responded to strings that were
ence. As stated above, he led the development on, etc.), additive conjunctions, ingestion of correct in Yerkish, and rejected others.
of the computer program for automatic parser solids, ingestion of liquids, relational motor According to Ernst’s analyses, Lana had a
of the language that was capable of evaluating acts (groom, tickle), locomotion, and so on. “strong tendency toward grammaticality” (
the lexicon and the grammar. Color back- The language constructed was described by Glasersfeld, 1977b, p. 128–129). She was, of
grounds were used to designate semantic Ernst as a “correlational” grammar, which was course, rewarded for grammatical strings but
classes – for example, any violet lexigram cor- implemented earlier in the “multistore parser” not for non-grammatical strings. He con-
responded to an autonomous actor, and any for English. It was not generative or transfor- cluded that the grammaticality of Lana’s
red lexigram represented something edible. mational in the Chomskian sense. His correla- “utterances” was enabled by the design of the
Nine different shapes were presented in vari- tional grammar mapped the conceptual sys- language which reflected the conceptual
ous combinations to make discriminable lexi- tem of Yerkish onto the linguistic system. structures common to humans and chimps.
grams. The lexigrams actually used by Lana at Ernst described the parser as indicating the Lana expressed her representations of situa-
any given time were reproduced as facsimiles relationships into which a given lexical item tions through the choice and ordering of her
in a row projected immediately above Lana’s might legally enter. There were some 30 “cor- lexigrams. He also concluded that Lana
console of keys so that she could see what she relators” that connected types of items – for learned “rules” of grammar that “are relatively
had said. example, one connected autonomous actors close to the rules that govern conceptual rep-
Ernst’s language system allowed for 46 log- performing a stationary activity as in “Lana resentation… ”
ical classes of word-lexigrams. Examples of the drink.” Another example was for a movable In 1975 the project was extended to work
classes of lexigrams included familiar pri- actor changing places, as in “Tim move.” Yet with mentally retarded children and young

30 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

© Duane Rumbaugh
Figure 2: Lana in action. Bottom left: Excerpt of the lexicon.

adults (Parkel, While, & Warner, 1977). We References Rumbaugh, D. M. (ed.) Language Learn-
were ecstatic to see that they learned upwards ing by a Chimpanzee. The LANA project.
of 80–90 lexigrams and used them to commu- Hillix, W. A. & Rumbaugh, D. M. (2004) Ani- Academic Press: New York, pp. 55–72.
nicate with their parents and friends as they mal bodies, human minds. The language Parkel, D. A., White, R. Z. & Warner, H. (1977)
could not do otherwise. skills of ape, dolphin, and parrot. Kluwer: Implications of the Yerkes technology for
Thus, Ernst von Glasersfeld’s creative con- New York. mentally retarded human subjects. In:
tributions in the early years of the LANA Glasersfeld, E. von (1977a) The Yerkish lan- Rumbaugh, D. M. (ed.) Language learning
Project, coupled with those of all the other guage and its automatic parser. In: Rum- by a chimpanzee. The LANA project. Aca-
team members, helped open the door and baugh, D. M. (ed.) Language learning by a demic Press: New York, pp. 274–283.
keep it open for future research. Apes were chimpanzee. The LANA Project. Aca-
capable of, at least, the basic skills for human demic Press: New York, pp. 91–130.
language, and their accomplishments were Glasersfeld, E. von (1977b) Linguistic Com- Received: 15 February 2006
uniquely put to human need. – We thank him. munication: Theory and definition. In: Accepted: 5 February 2007

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 31

historical; cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

The Yerkish Language.

From Operational Methodology to
Chimpanzee Communication
Marco Bettoni A Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences (Switzerland) <>

Origins of Yerkish –
Purpose:Yerkish is an artificial language created in 1971 for the specific purpose of explor-
ing the linguistic potential of nonhuman primates. The aim of this paper is to remind the The LANA project
research community of some important issues and concepts related to Yerkish that seem One day in the fall of 1970 Ray Carpenter, one
to have been forgotten or appear to be distorted. These are, particularly, its success, its of the fathers of primatology in the United
promising aspects for future research and last but not least that it was Ernst von Glaser- States, came to the almost regular Saturday
sfeld who invented Yerkish: he coined the term “lexigrams,” created the first 120 of them golf meeting with von Glaserfeld bringing
and designed the grammar that regulated their combination. Design: The first part of with him an intriguing idea: The Yerkes
this paper begins with a short outline of the context in which the Yerkish language origi- National Primate Research Center in
nated: the original LANA project. It continues by presenting the language itself in more Atlanta1 (Georgia), the first and foremost
detail: first, its design, focusing on its “lexigrams” and its “correlational” grammar (the institute of primate research in the USA, was
connective functions or “correlators” and the combinations of lexigrams, or “correla- planning to investigate the possibility of
tions”), and then its use by the chimpanzee Lana in formulating sentences.The second part communication between humans and great
gives a brief introduction to the foundation of Yerkish in Silvio Ceccato’s Operational apes via a computer by means of a visual lan-
Methodology, particularly his idea of the correlational structure of thought and concludes guage. The great apes (gorillas, orangutans,
with the main insights that can be derived from the Yerkish experiment seen in the light chimpanzees) would probably never learn a
of Operational Methodology. Findings: Lana’s success in language learning and the success spoken language, Carpenter said, but they
of Yerkish during the past decades are probably due to the characteristics of Yerkish, par- were quick and clever with their fingers and
ticularly its foundation in operational methodology.The operation of correlation could be Alan and Beatrice Gardner had successfully
what constitutes thinking in a chimpanzee and an attentional system could be what deliv- taught ASL (the American Sign Language
ers the mental content that correlation assembles into triads and networks. used by deaf people) to a chimpanzee called
Research implications: Since no other assessment or explanation of Lana’s performances Washoe.2
has considered these foundational issues (findings), a new research project or program Despite impressive results in teaching sign
should validate the above-mentioned hypotheses, particularly the correlational structure language to the great apes, in those years as
of chimpanzee thinking. well as during the following two decades, lin-
Keywords:Yerkish, artificial language, correlational grammar, operational methodology, guists and psychologists – who wanted to
Silvio Ceccato, machine translation, chimpanzee communication. believe with Chomsky that language was a
human prerogative – doubted that “an ape
can truly create a sentence” (Terrace et al.
an ape also useful for understanding some of 1979, p. 891) and claimed that “they show no
Introduction the abilities involved in human language and unequivocal evidence of mastering the conver-
Could an ape participate in a chat session vice-versa? How can these questions be sational semantics or syntactic organization of
over the Internet? At first sight the question answered in a scientific manner? language” (Terrace et al. 1979, p. 901). They
may seem silly, but I claim that it could – at Today science seems to have overcome the also said that sign language did not have a
least in part – be taken seriously and in this old behaviourist stimulus–response bond and proper syntax and therefore was not really a
paper I will try to show why. To begin with, finds itself in a somewhat better position to try language. Moreover they suggested that the
let us step back a little and have a look at to answer this and related questions. But about Gardners were like parents with a baby: they
some questions that the scientific commu- 40 years ago, when Ernst von Glasersfeld cre- saw and heard demonstrations of linguistic
nity would probably accept as more “sound.” ated “Yerkish” – an artificial language for use capabilities that no one else could see or hear.
Is language no longer the exclusive domain by apes in computer-mediated communica- The Yerkes Center plan was to build a
of man? Can an ape create a sentence? Are tion (CMC) with machines and humans – the communication system with a simplified lan-
explanations of language learning and use by situation was much more uncomfortable. guage, a keyboard, and a small computer to

32 Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3
historical; cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

explore computer-mediated communication Beside providing food and drink, the com-
between humans and apes. The computer puter could respond to correctly formulated
would record everything the ape typed on the requests by playing taped music or sounds,
keyboard and there would be no subjective projecting movies and slides as well as open-
bias as to what the ape had or had not typed. ing and shutting the above-mentioned win-
This plan seemed a great idea to von Glasers- dow. Above the keyboard was a sturdy hori-
feld and when Carpenter asked him if he zontal bar that Lana had to hang on to in order
would like to design the special language and to switch on the system (Fig. 1).
the computer system for handling it, he
immediately accepted. In his turn, von Gla-
sersfeld recommended that his long-term The Yerkish language
research partner Pier Paolo Pisani3, a compu-
ter specialist, also join the effort. Language as a communicatory system has
After a number of conferences among the three indispensable characteristics (Glasers-
members of the project team, in early winter feld 1977a, p. 66): a) it has a set, or lexicon, of
1970 a proposal was submitted to the artificial signs; b) it has a set of rules, or gram-
National Institute of Health requesting funds mar, that governs the creation of sentences as
for a 4-year period. In spring 1971 the grant sequences of lexical entries; c) its signs are
was awarded (NIH grants HD-060164and used as symbols (Glasersfeld 1974).
RR-00165). The team immediately began The lexicon of Yerkish was developed by
designing and building the system and a few von Glasersfeld starting from a list of things
weeks later everyone was introduced to the that would presumably interest a young
subject of the research, a young female chim- chimpanzee (and the experimenters) and
panzee called Lana (born October 7, 1970).5 could be available in the project. The words of
In the first phase of the project a Plexiglas this preliminary vocabulary were about 150,
cubicle the size of a small room was built on but in the beginning only 25 were put on the
to an existing wall that had a window to the first panel of keys. Each key had an abstract
outside of the Yerkes Center. One of the Plexi- design representing not a letter but the “word- Figure 1: Lana at the lexigram board.
glas walls was dedicated to the keyboard, a design” for a single concept. Ernst von Gla- Photo Ernst von Glasersfeld.
square array unit of initially 5x5 keys, with sersfeld coined for these word-designs the
space for other units to be added as Lana got name “lexigrams” and created them by means
more proficient. By sequentially pressing the of non-representational design elements to characteristics like being able to eat, drink,
keys of the keyboard, code signals standing for emphasize their symbol-character (Fig. 2) groom, tickle, give things or make things hap-
words were sent to the computer, which con- and to prevent critical linguists from saying pen were collected in the lexigram class
tained the vocabulary and the grammar of that Lana recognized them just because they “autonomous actor” and divided into four
Yerkish, the automatic parser for checking the were familiar pictures. Whenever Lana sub-groups: “familiar primates” (lexigram
correctness of sentences, and the rules for pressed keys the respective lexigrams were Lana and lexigrams for the first names of
activating a dispenser in response to requests projected on to a row of small windows above technicians and experimenters, like Tim or
that Lana was to formulate in Yerkish word the keyboard, one after the other from left to Shelley), “unfamiliar primates” (lexigram vis-
symbols (Glasersfeld 1995, p. 11). The com- right. This helped Lana to see how far along itor), “nonprimates” (lexigram roach) and
puter itself and the terminal with a keyboard she was in typing the sentence – seven was the “inanimate actor” (lexigram machine). Sev-
for the researchers were placed just outside maximum length of a sentence. Moreover eral lexigrams were assigned to classes desig-
the room: from here the experimenters could projecting the lexigrams in this row was used nating relational concepts like the class “par-
interact with Lana by typing sentences that to flash messages from the human trainers to titive proposition” (lexigram of ), the class
were displayed above her keyboard and they Lana and to make conversations possible. “semantic indicator” (lexigram name-of ) and
could also see how she was behaving during After compiling the lexicon of Yerkish, the the class “attributive marker” (lexigram
the computer-mediated communication ses- lexical items were divided into classes. Since which-is).
sion.6 Yerkish was designed on the basis of a “corre- Like the lexicon, the grammar of Yerkish
Next to Lana’s keyboard was the row of lational” approach to language (Glasersfeld was also “correlational”: in fact von Glasers-
food and drink dispensers, activated through 1970), the lexigram-classes were defined in feld derived it from the correlational gram-
the computer; they would provide all sorts of terms of the functional characteristics of con- mar implemented from 1960 to 1970 in his
food and drink (like apple, bread, chow, cepts and not, as in a traditional lexicon, in projects for the machine translation of
banana, milk, juice etc.) and it was hoped that terms of morphology and the roles they English sentences (Hutchins 2000). As a con-
Lana would learn to feed herself by means of would play in sentences (noun, verb, adjec- sequence the Yerkish grammar was an inter-
request sentences typed on the keyboard. tive, etc.). For instance, items with functional pretive device and consisted of the rules of a

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 33

historical; cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

relating. In natural lan-

guages correlators are triad
indicated in a variety of
ways, either implicitly or correlator
explicitely. A correlator
is always a binary func-
tion in that it links two
mental operands – LH correlatum RH correlatum
expressed in language by
either single words or
word combinations – Figure 3: A correlator as a binary function.
and thus forms a new
unit (a triad) called a
“correlation” (Fig. 3).
Implicit correlators are
indicated in phrases or 6. Please Tim give milk to Lana
sentences merely by the (C_00 Please (C_05 Tim (C_21 (C_17
juxtaposition of the two give milk) (C_22 to Lana))))
lexical items they link, 7. Tim give apple which-is red to Lana
machine name-of candy out-of and “explicit” correla- (C_05 Tim (C_21 (C_17 give (C_31 apple
tors are indicated by (C_10 which-is red))) (C_22 to Lana)))
specific words (such as 8. Please Tim move out-of room
propositions, conjunc- (C_00 Please (C_07 Tim (C_21 move
tions, etc.). In the fol- (C_22 out-of room))))
lowing we will use “cor- 9. Please Shelley move behind room
Lana eat tickle into relator” both for the (C_00 Please (C_07 Shelley (C_21 move
relational concepts and (C_22 behind room))))
Figure 2: Lexigrams table developed by von Glasersfeld in 1971. for the linguistic devices Compare the sentences of example 1 and
that express them. 2. They require two different correlators
In 1974 the Yerkish C_01 and C_02 because the performed activ-
primitive syntax that governed which lexi- grammar used by Lana operated with some ity they link with the actor performing them
gram sequences (i.e., sentences) were to be 30 correlators. Five of these are, for example, are different: correlator C_01 (example 1)
considered correct (i.e., any input that it correlators that connect an operand of the connects an autonomous animate actor with
could interpret) and which mistaken (any class “actor” with an operand of the class a stationary activity whereas correlator C_02
input that it could not). There were three “activity.” In the following examples we des- (example 2) connects an autonomous ani-
classes of sentences: statements, requests, and ignate the correlators by the letter “C” and the mate actor with a transferring activity.
questions. Requests were differentiated from number used to identify them in the LANA Sentences 3 and 4, although very similar,
the others by first pressing a key called project; a correlation is then written as list of require two different correlators C_05 and
“please”; questions had to begin with a ques- correlators and operands using Polish nota- C_06 because the intended effect they link
tion mark. To know when to check the cor- tion (prefix notation with operators left of with the agent causing it are different: corre-
rectness of Lana’s typing, the computer their operands). Examples of sentences and lator C_05 (example 3) connects a causative
needed a signal to indicate the end of a sen- their correlations in Yerkish: agent with a change of position whereas cor-
tence, like a period. 1. Lana drink relator C_06 (example 4) connects a caus-
The correlational approach to language is (C_01 Lana drink) ative agent with a change of state.
based on the assumption that sentences 2. Tim carry Lana
express in language sequences of mental oper- (C_02 Tim (C_14 carry Lana))
ations (attentional operations) performed at 3. Please machine give M&M Use of Yerkish by Lana
the cognitive level (Ceccato 1964, p. 14). The (C_00 Please (C_05 machine (C_017 give
most important among the mental operations M&M)))
are obviously those that establish connections 4. Please machine make movie Lana’s training began with a panel of three or
among conceptual operands and thus build (C_00 Please (C_06 machine (C_18 make four keys for learning a set of preliminaries,
up complex structures. These relational con- movie))) such as that it was the sequence of lexigrams
cepts, that Ceccato called correlators (Ceccato 5. Please machine give piece of banana in the row of windows above the keyboard
et al. 1961, p. 36), are connective functions (C_00 Please (C_05 machine (C_17 give that counted, not their position in the panel,
used at the mental level in the process of cor- (C_026 (C_25 piece of) banana)))) or that it was always necessary to press the

34 Constructivist Foundations
historical; cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

period key at the end of a sentence. She first She went out of the cubicle and to the other Silvio Ceccato and the
learned to press a single key in order to side of the transparent wall – which from
obtain a piece of food or an M&M candy. Lana’s point of view could quite reasonably correlational structure
Lana progressed rapidly in her training and be conceptualized as “behind room.” Lana of thought
within the first 2 weeks of training she watched her clear the dispenser and immedi-
learned to concatenate keys to form a stock ately typed: “Please machine give piece of The correlational approach to language that
sentence like “Please machine give M&M” banana” (see example 5). On this and many von Glasersfeld applied in developing Yerkish
(example 3) or “Please machine make other similar occasions, Lana, by means of was based on investigations of mental activi-
movie” (example 4). original, spontaneous, and appropriate ties that Silvio Ceccato had begun in 1939
When she got the first 25-lexigrams panel, utterances, made it quite clear that she was (Ceccato 1964/1966). Together with a group
she quickly learned to watch the row of win- indeed capable of forming concepts and able of scholars living in Italy he proposed from
dows above the keyboard to check what she to use the lexigrams in language. Lana dem- the beginning to study thought and its con-
had typed. It took her no time to find out that onstrated that she was able to participate in tents in terms of operations (Ceccato 1951,
when she made a typing error she could erase a manner of living that we call language, i.e., 1953). Because of this “operational approach”
what she had typed by pressing the period key that she could experience a recursive coordi- or “operational methodology,” Ceccato's
(which made the computer cancel the input nation of behavioural coordinations, a pro- group was called the "Italian Operational
because it contained an error). Lana learned cess which allowed her to have a recursive School.” His research activity was devoted to
not only to use several stock sentences appro- influence on what she was experiencing. understanding the basic structure and
priately, but also to build novel sentences that In September 1974 Lana’s lexigram board dynamics of thought production, to the
were syntactically correct. consisted of 3 panels of 25 keys each development of an operational solution to the
Unfortunately the director of the project (Glasersfeld 1977b, p. 128). The total of 1577 problem of semantics (connection of thought
was convinced that understanding in com- grammatical 6-lexigram strings produced by and language) and to applications of opera-
munication with Lana could be proved sta- Lana in this month can be assigned to 125 tional methodology in machine translation
tistically: as a consequence, in order to col- sentence types. Four types are requests for experiments.
lect statistical evidence of her “skills,” Lana food and account for 1288 tokens. Of the The basic assumption of operational
was subjected to repetitive tests like a rat in a remaining 289 tokens, 228 represent 76 types methodology is that the essential function (or
maze. It was clear from simply watching her that were spontaneously formulated by Lana activity) for the constitution of any mental
behaviour, that, like a human child, she lost – none of them were produced as a result of content is the function of attention. In fact, it
interest after the nth repetition and pressed training. In some cases their occurrence was is easy to notice that without attention we do
keys without looking. Her statistics therefore even a rather imaginative transference of a not have mental content, i.e., no mental life.
tended to be worse than those of rats. On the meaning acquired in a very specific context Our clothes are in contact with our body: do
other hand, she did things that no rat could to a substantially different context. we feel them? Not if we do not pay attention
ever do. When Tim, the graduate student These and similar facts persuaded von to them. We are typing on the computer key-
who worked with her in these experiments, Glasersfeld that Lana was well able to com- board: are we aware of our finger touching a
repeated the same question for the nth time, municate by means of symbols and also key? Not if we do not pay attention to it. Sim-
she typed in the response: “Please Tim move clearly indicated that understanding com- ilarly we do not notice the noise of traffic out-
out of room” (see example 8). This was above munication with Lana could not be tested side or understand what someone in the
all remarkable because Lana had encoun- statistically but shown only by the appropri- group is saying if we do not pay attention. In
tered expressions such as “out of,” “in front ateness of individual utterances. Unfortu- other words, the dynamism of physical inter-
of,” and “behind” only in the context of nately they did not convince the conven- action between our organism and our sur-
boxes and wooden blocks on a table and the tional experimental psychologists involved roundings proceeds on its own account with-
notion that her room was a kind of box you in the LANA project of the necessity to devise out constituting any mental content unless we
could “move out of ” was entirely her own. more appropriate research methods. direct our attention to the functioning of the
On another occasion, when Shelley Later experiments in other projects (Sav- different organs of hearing, touch, etc.
appeared outside the Plexiglas cubicle, Lana, age-Rumbaugh et al. 1980) suggested that Attention, however, is not limited to this
rushed to the keyboard and typed: “Please Lana had difficulties in expanding her lin- function of making present the functioning of
Shelley move behind room” (see example 9). guistic domain7 beyond the limits of the other organs; in fact, attention is not applied
Shelley, who had no idea what it could mean, domain of interactions through a computer continuously but for discrete intervals of
did not take any action so that Lana, who was in which she had participated. On the other time, ranging from a tenth of a second to a
expecting a specific intervention, threw up hand Kanzi, a bonobo, though he had never second and a half: after this time, attention
both her arms in an unmistakable human- been taught, learned Yerkish very well and detaches itself and after a short pause can be
like gesture of despair and once more typed even some English by simply listening and applied again. In this way, as it is applied and
the same phrase. Eventually Shelley looked participating in the laboratory environment detached repeatedly, it fragments into dis-
at the array of dispensers and noticed that during his mother Matata’s training sessions crete pieces (so-called “praesentiata” or
the one for slices of banana had got stuck. (Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin 1994). recepts) the functioning of other organs and

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 35

historical; cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

builds an oscillation similar to alpha waves in thought, according to Silvio Ceccato is always birds, reptiles, dishwashers or chairs this kind
the brain or to the rhythmic contractions of a triad, called a “correlation,” composed of of explanation is useful with the word items of
the heart. This conception of a pulsating two correlates assembled together by a corre- a natural language only for the purpose of
attention and of discrete microunits of mental lator (Ceccato 1961, 1967). This triad has a describing a catalogue.
activity has been recently confirmed by neu- characteristic dynamism, an order of opera- However, for users and developers of a lan-
rophysiological experiments suggesting that tional precedence in that the first correlate, or guage – for instance children acquiring it
“the seemingly continuous stream of con- first mental construct is the first in time to be from their interactions or machine transla-
sciousness consists of separable building constituted (or activated) and is then held tion researchers using it in experiments – the
blocks” (Lehmann et al. 1998, 2000). present (active) during the constitution of the main purpose is not description but the inter-
A third function of attention could be correlator, which in its turn is held present pretation and production of sentences, i.e., of
called the “generating” function. Why? during the constitution of the second corre- combinations of items. For this reason the
Because it allows attention not only to be late, or second mental construct. The corre- usefulness of the explanation depends on its
applied to other organs but to be applied to lates can be concepts, percepts or entire ability to accurately specify in operational
nothing (a state of simple vigilance, an empty thoughts but the correlator is always a purely (functional) terms the items involved. This
attention) or to its own functioning instead, attentional microunit, a mental category. characterisation in functional terms is exactly
thus generating discrete attentional frag- Correlation constitutes the dynamism of what the correlational approach provides by
ments that are not pieces of hearing, touch, thought, of which the triad is the smallest means of a minute and rigorous discrimina-
vision or other sensorial activity but purely unit. The larger units of thought are obtained tion of a word-item’s eligibility as correlatum
attentional microunits (attentional states). by using a correlation as a term in another or correlator within a correlation (Glasersfeld
We would however never build a seem- correlation, which in its turn can become a & Pisani 1968, pp. 1–2).
ingly continuous stream of consciousness, if part of a third correlation, and so on, until a To reify a simple correlation into a linguis-
there were not: greater or smaller correlational network is tic form, each single element must be desig-
1. “Categorization” as the function which assembled. Pronouns and other words with nated by means of at least two indications:
enables the mind to produce concepts by recall functions then make it possible for one to say what it is (referential function) and
combining attentional states into more complete correlational networks to be reused the other to say what function it performs in
complex combinations (macrounits). as elements in other correlations.
2. “Perception” as the function which
enables the mind to produce percepts by ABOUT THE AUTHOR
applying some results of categorization to Language and thought Marco C. Bettoni was born in Legnano
(Italy) in 1952. Since September 2005 he is
3. “Correlation” as the function which A fundamental function of language consists
Director of Research & Consulting at the
enables the mind to assemble concepts and in ensuring that thoughts can be reified. One
Swiss Distance University of Applied Sci-
percepts into thoughts. way of reifying thoughts is by designating
ences ( where his main
The operation of categorization received them, i.e., by establishing a viable correspon-
research topics are knowledge coopera-
this name because it produces mental con- dence between the polyphonic structure of
tion, knowledge networking, distance coop-
structs that Ceccato, in honor of Kant has thought and a linear sequence of perceivable
eration, distance- and e-learning and
called “mental categories.” Thus mental cate- items.
communities of practice.
gories comprise those mental constructs Given a background of an operational
After receiving his master degree in
which are made only by combinations of dis- methodology, with its attentional model of
mechanical engineering in 1977 (ETH
crete attentional fragments and do not con- mental contents and its correlational model
Zürich) he has worked until 1991 for indus-
tain anything originating from observation. of thinking, we are now in a position to
trial (Rieter, Siemens), banking (UBS) and
Examples of mental categories are the more or explain language in a completely different
academic (ETH) organizations in the
less complex combinations (concepts) of way: an operational way!
domains of machine design, engineering
attentional microunits designated by words Traditional grammars explain, for
education, IT management, IT development
like “thing,” “object,” “beginning,” “end,” instance, vocabulary items (the lexicon) by
and knowledge engineering (Artificial Intel-
“part,” “whole,” “element,” “group,” “set,” assigning them as elements to classes such as
“point,” “line,” “and,” “or,” “singular,” “plural,” “noun,” verb,” “adjective,” etc. by virtue of
Between 1991 and 2004 he was Professor
“space,” “time,” “number,” “1,” “2,” “3,” etc. some feature that is identified as common to
for Knowledge Technologies at the Basel
Each category is differentiated from the oth- all the members of a class. Since many mem-
University of Applied Sciences (FHBB). In
ers by the number of discrete attentional bers do not display all the required character-
June 2003 ETH Zürich (
states (fragments) which it comprises and by istics of their class, grammars usually proceed
appointed him as “guest researcher” for
the way in which they are combined. by subdividing a class according to the specific
investigating the role of knowledge-ori-
The operation of correlating is what con- or “exceptional” features of certain items. One
ented cooperation in Knowledge Manage-
stitutes thinking. It assembles the attentional might call this the botanist’s, zoologist’s or
units in a binary tree. The basic structure of retailer’s approach: as with trees, flowers,

36 Constructivist Foundations
historical; cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

the correlation (correlational function), able (Ceccato & Zonta 1980, p. 78). For means of appropriate Yerkish sentences she
whether that of correlator or that of first (left example, consider the expressions “to eat an made it quite clear that she was not only capa-
hand) or second (right hand) correlatum. In apple” and “to eat an hour” (for instance in: ble of forming concepts and of using lexi-
order to supply these indications, languages “You may also need to eat an hour before train- grams but also able to participate in a manner
can offer basically two means: on the one ing…”): without a general culture which of living that we call language, i.e., that she
hand they use a particular, phonic or graphic allows us to distinguish between food items could experience a recursive coordination of
material (spoken or written words), and on and time intervals the correlation expressed behavioural coordinations, through which
the other hand they use the order of succes- in the previous sentences could not be cor- she could recursively influence what she was
sion into which this material is put (word rectly produced or interpreted. experiencing.
sequence). Only by providing these six indi- As a consequence of this tight connection The key question in her language acquisi-
cations can we identify two expressions such to knowledge and experience, language can- tion is how Lana learned the appropriate syn-
as “green bottle” and “bottle green” as two dif- not merely be considered as a strictly organ- tactic forms and word order for expressing
ferent correlations or units of thought. ised and classified system of words and complex relations in Yerkish as well as a kind
Mostly a correlation will be designated by phrases: it must also be approached as an of common sense background knowledge.
employing two or three words (or whole sen- extremely intuitive arrangement of things, How did she correctly concatenate the lexi-
tences in a correlational net), which is to say, intuitive in its production and intuitive in its grams? How did she learn to do that? Was it
the required indications are distributed interpretation (Glasersfeld 1965, XIII–1). merely due to good training practice on the
among two or three words, but usually the This is not to say that language does not part of the primatologists? Our hypothesis is
correlations that occur more frequently are include logical functions and logical implica- that the success of Lana is primarily due to the
indicated by only two words, one for the first tions, but it embraces very much more: for fact that she learned the grammar rules of
and one for the second correlatum, whereas instance, interpretations that are “correct” Yerkish. How? By matching her conceptual
the correlator remains tacit. How can we merely because they are much more probable abilities with the correlational structure of
understand a correlation of this kind in which than others, given our experience of the world Yerkish. As a consequence we see the success
there is no explicit word for the correlator? In we live in and our knowledge of how certain of Yerkish during the past decades (originally
some cases the correlator is indicated by things are related (notional sphere). with Lana since 1973 and later with other
changes in the form of the designation of one apes, such as Kanzi) as a demonstration of the
of the correlates but in all other cases the indi- viability of the operational methodology that
cation of the appropriate correlator has to be Conclusion is its foundation. We hence propose that
deduced from a wide-spread knowledge, a Lana’s conceptual system be considered as a
common cultural heritage behind any lan- Since the great apes are the closest relatives to correlational system in which the operation of
guage, for which Ceccato has coined the terms human beings, experiments in teaching them correlation is what constitutes the chimpan-
“Notional Sphere” (Ceccato 1961 et al., p. 62) a language can shed some light on the human zee’s thinking and an attentional system deliv-
and “Constellation” (Ceccato 1961 et al., mind. Although Lana could not speak, she ers the mental contents that correlation
p. 63), which were precursors of methods of learned to communicate in the Yerkish lan- assembles into triads and networks. Since no
knowledge representation such as frames and guage. Lana was the first ape to work with a other assessment or explanation of Lana’s
scripts in early Artificial Intelligence research computer keyboard, the first to show that performances has considered these funda-
(Sowa 1984, p. 128). Knowing how certain chimpanzees could form syntactically correct mental issues, we strongly suggest that a new
things are related allows the designation to be sentences, could recognize written symbols, research project or program be conducted to
made more efficiently by reducing the num- could read and could complete incomplete investigate the above-mentioned hypothesis
ber of explicit indications, thus making com- sentences appropriately. On many occasions of the importance of Yerkish in Lana’s success
munication more rapid, flexible and adjust- within the context of the LANA project, by in language learning.

Notes matic translations projects, first in Italy cludes a six-minute feature on the
and later in USA. chimpanzee Lana, seen during training
1. Yerkes National Primate Research Center, 4. sessions of the LANA project where Lana query.fcgi?CMD=Display&DB=pubmed communicates via her keyboard with re-
2. Alan and Beatrice Gardner about Washoe: 5. The Georgia State University Language searcher Tim Gill. The movie can be
see Gardner, R.A. & Gardner, B.T. (1969) Research Center, viewed at
and (1971) ~wwwlrc/chimps.htm research/general/lana.php#
3. Piero Pisani, a computer scientist who had 6. “The Amazing Apes,” a TV program pro- 7. Also mentioned in Maturana and Varela
worked with von Glaserfeld in his auto- duced in 1977 by Bill Burrud, which in- (1987), pp. 215–217

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 37

historical; cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

References of the conference on computer-related Lehmann, D., Koenig, T., Pascual-Marqui, R.

semantic analysis, December 3–5, 1965, D., Koukkou, M. & Strik, W. K. (2000)
Ceccato, S. (1951) Language and the table of Las Vegas USA. National Science Founda- Functional tomography of EEG
Ceccatieff. Hermann & Cie: Paris. tion & Office of Naval Research, U.S. Air microstates of visual imagery and abstract
Ceccato, S. (1953) Consapevolizzazione Force, pp. XIII 1–24. thought: Building blocks of conscious
dell’Osservare, mod. 3", Atti del Con- Glasersfeld, E. von (1970) The correlational experience. Brain Topography 12: 298.
gresso di Metodologia. Ramella: Torino. approach to language. Thought and Lan- Lehmann, D., Strik, W. K., Henggeler, B.,
Ceccato, S. (1964/1966) Un tecnico fra i guage in Operations 1(4): 391–398. Koenig, T. & Koukkou, M. (1998) Brain
filosofi. Vol. 1 & 2. Marsilio: Padova. Glasersfeld, E. von (1974) The Yerkish lan- electric microstates and momentary con-
Ceccato, S. (1964) A model of the mind. guage for non-human primates. American scious mind states as building blocks of
Methodos 16: 3–78. Journal of Computational Linguistics 1, spontaneous thinking: I. Visual Imagery
Ceccato, S. (1967) Correlational analysis and microfiche 12. and abstract thoughts. Int. J. Psychophysi-
mechanical translation. ORIGINAL Glasersfeld, E. von (1977a) Linguistic com- ology 29: 1–11.
CITATION. Reprinted in: Nirenburg, S., munication: Theory and definition. In: Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. (1987) The tree
Somers H. & Wilks, Y. (eds.) (2003) Read- Rumbaugh, D. M. (ed.) Language Learn- of knowledge. The biological roots of
ings in machine translation. MIT Press: ing by a Chimpanzee: The LANA project. human understanding. Shambhala: Bos-
Cambridge. Academic Press: New York, pp. 55–71. ton.
Ceccato, S. & Zonta, B. (1980) Linguaggio, Glasersfeld, E. von (1977b) The Yerkish lan- Rumbaugh, D. M. & Washburn, D. A. (2003)
Consapevolezza, Pensiero. Feltrinelli: guage and its automatic parser. In: Rum- Intelligence of apes and other rational
Milan. baugh, D. M. (ed.) Language Learning by beings. Yale Universitiy Press: New Haven.
Ceccato, S., Beltrame, R., Glasersfeld, E. von, a Chimpanzee: The LANA project. Aca- Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Rumbaugh, D. M.,
Perschke, S., Maretti, E., Zonta, B., & demic Press: New York, pp. 91–129. Smith, S. T., & Lawson, J. (1980) Refer-
Albani, E. (1961) Linguistic analysis and Glasersfeld, E. von (1995) Radical construc- ence: The linguistic essential. Science 210:
programming for mechanical translation. tivism: A way of knowing and learning. 922–925.
Feltrinelli: Milan & Gordon & Breach: Falmer Press: London. Savage-Rumbaugh, S., & Lewin, R. (1994)
New York. Glasersfeld, E. von (2000) Silvio Ceccato and Kanzi: The ape at the brink of the human
Gardner, B. T. & Gardner, R. A. (1971) Two- the Correlational Grammar. In: Hutchins, mind. John Wiley Publishers: New York.
way communication with an infant chim- W. J. (ed.) Early years in machine transla- Sowa, J. (1984) Conceptual structures. Infor-
panzee. In: Schrier, A. M. & Stollnitz, F. tion. John Benjamins: Amsterdam, pp. mation processing in mind and machine.
(eds.) Behavior of non-human primates. 313–324. Addison-Wesley: Reading.
Vol. 4. Academic Press: New York, pp. 117– Glasersfeld, E. von & Pisani, P. P. (1968) The Terrace, H. S., Petitto, L. A., Sanders, R. J. &
184. Multistore System MP-2. Scientific Bever, T. G. (1979) Can an ape create a sen-
Gardner, R. A. & Gardner, B. T. (1969) Teach- Progress Report, Grant AFOSR 1319–67. tence? Science 206: 891–902.
ing sign language to a chimpanzee. Science Georgia Institute for Research: Athens.
165: 664–672. Hutchins, J. (ed.) (2000) Early years in
Glasersfeld, E. von (1965) An approach to the machine translation. John Benjamins: Received: 30 September 2006
semantics of propositions. In: Proceedings Amsterdam. Accepted: 28 January 2007

38 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

Ernst to Amherst, Massachusetts

Jack Lochhead A DeLiberate Thinking (USA) <>
turtle to Athens to see if Lana could learn to made a powerful impression on me. Basically
M emory is no less of a construction than
reality. So the truth of how Ernst program in LOGO. I doubt if all of the world’s it set my ski goals for the next two decades.
decided to move from Athens to Amherst is current problems can be traced to our failure Perhaps it did the same for Ernst.
most likely floating in foam sliding down the to pull off this experiment. But things might In 1987 Ernst retired from the University
side of a drained pint. My first clear memory be fundamentally different if we of Georgia and moved to Amherst, Massachu-
of Ernst is dinner with him and John Richards all had to construct realities setts. Charlotte’s daughter Lisa was working
at a Philadelphia Magic Pan during the 1975 that included chimps who in Northampton, 10 miles distant, so the
Piaget Conference. For years afterwards I were busy writing com- move brought them closer to her. Ernst was a
searched out Magic Pans, yet never again puter programs. welcome addition to my research team at
found the same magic. Dinner was a long Over the next ten years UMass; especially since I had a grant from
discussion of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Ernst made several trips NSF to develop an interdisciplinary science
Maintenance punctuated by occa- to Amherst in an effort course based on an explicitly constructivist
sional diversions that to help us struggle with perspective. After three years and hundreds of
slammed into the the implications of con- hours of discussion a team of faculty from
wall. This was my first structivism for educa- physics, chemistry, biology and science edu-
introduction to Radical Constructivism tion. I made trips to cation discovered that while we all used the
and on the whole I liked it. Why some Athens including one term “energy” in a mathematically common
people are immediately attracted to that seems to have manner we could not jointly agree on how the
this perspective while others are repelled caused the Columbia Shuttle to concept should be presented. Academics have
is as much a mystery to me explode and constructed the disciplines so they cannot be
as are the apparently intelli- Why some people are another that froze merged.
gent people who after care- pipes all over I believe Ernst and I share a conviction that
ful consideration find ways
immediately attracted to this Georgia. Constructivism has something important to
of rejecting Constructiv- perspective while others are We met at vari- say about education. But exactly what that
ism. Piaget had prepared repelled is as much a mystery ous conferences: important something is appears to be increas-
me for modest acceptance to me as are the apparently Piaget in Philadel- ingly elusive. The Constructivist craze, now
of the extent to which we phia and PME all crushed by the Bush Regime, never captured
construct our reality. But intelligent people who after over North Amer- what we felt was most important. Construc-
Ernst and John wanted me careful consideration find ways ica. tivism carries within itself the conviction that
to understand that it was I of rejecting Constructivism For a PME in it is only one of many ways of perceiving expe-
who had constructed the Montreal Ernst rience. Thus it is not surprising that specific
Magic Pan’s brick walls so that none of us and Charlotte drove up from Athens to educational recommendations springing
could walk through them. Had I constructed Amherst only to suffer on north in the from Constructivism can invariably be
those walls differently perhaps they would no exhaust fumes of my diesel Rabbit. I was eager reached via another path and often one that
longer be an obstacle. to show them the sights of my home state of seems completely at odds with Constructiv-
A dozen years later Ernst and I were in Vermont but unfortunately had not accu- ism. For years Art Whimbey and I were easily
Hungary at the ICME conference watching rately constructed our car’s wake. able to collaborate on the books we wrote
the Hungarians reconstructing their walls. My efforts to torture Ernst also included even though Art was a strict behaviorist who
During lunch at a Budapest cafe Boyan Pen- cross country skiing. Without understanding considered constructivism to be the worst
kov told how he had found himself hiding quite how large the footsteps were that I was kind of bunk. Yet rarely did we have reason to
copies of Pravda so the Bulgarian authorities attempting to follow I loaned Ernst a pair of argue about how a classroom should be run.
would not know he was reading it. Then a few boots that were too small. Then I eagerly So why then do I feel Constructivism is
months later in Amherst as the Berlin Wall dragged him through our woods ending any useful? I believe it is only through Construc-
actually came crashing down, Boyan insisted interest he may have had in the cross country tivism that one can appreciate the critical role
that it would never happen in Bulgaria. So aspect of skiing. We finished up at the top of a of the learner. While a teacher may be impor-
much for walls. sledding hill which Ernst plunged down in a tant he or she is never essential and can in no
In 1975 Ernst was still working on the Lana beautiful series of linked telemarks. This was manner determine the learning outcome.
project and I was playing with turtles. So we well before telemarking became a common This realization should have profound impli-
cooked up a scheme where I would bring a sight on American ski slopes and the image cations. But with the realization rare and

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 39
historical radical constructivism

Ernst von Glasersfeld sunning at St. Anton (Austria) 1999 (Photo by Jack Lochhead).

unpopular the profound implications will Ernst constructed a short ski run through the opened without first calculating the effect of
have to wait. woods on the hill behind his house but our altitude on pressurized cans.
I suspect Ernst moved to Massachusetts in snow conditions gave him little opportunity In 1997 we diverted to Alta in Utah. Here
the hope of getting back into skiing, a sport he to practice. Then in March of 1990, 25 years Ernst discovered, 2 weeks after his birthday,
had given up over 20 years earlier when he left after Ernst gave up skiing for good, we spent 5 that at Alta anyone over 80 can ski for free. We
Italy for Georgia. But for his first years in Mas- days at Jay Peak in Northern Vermont. I were hooked. The following year we encoun-
sachusetts there was little evidence of this. twisted my ankle on the first day and made tered a poleless skier dressed in an English
fantastic progress on a chapter I was writing. sports jacket. Pandamonium had indeed come
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Ernst froze in the Vermont winter with condi- to Alta.
tions which were windy and icy. In May of 1998 Ernst returned from a sem-
Jack Lochhead is an innovator, developer and Five years elapsed and then Ernst suggested inar in Austria with the news that he had skied
researcher in the field of Cognitive Instruc- that we submit a paper to the Journées Interna- up and down the Wildspitze. Viability may
tion. At the University of Massachusetts, tionales sur la communication, l'éducation et la require more than one instance but belief and
1975–1990, he established new programs in culture scientifiques et industrielles which met confidence do not. Ernst now knew he could
research and teaching and he led the team at in Chamonix, March 1995. After a gap of 30 ski the mountains of his youth.
Mount Holyoke College that created Sum- years Ernst was back to skiing in the Alps! We Somewhere in the midst of all this Ernst
merMath. He has had teaching positions at returned the following year, stayed longer and learned that Chamonix might allow free skiing
the Univ. of Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke included a run down the Mer de Glace, the after age 100. We continue our preparations
College, Harvard Univ. and the Univ. of the longest lift-served run in the world. During for 2017.
Western Cape in South Africa. this run I managed to spray Ernst, rather thor- Received: 2 October 2006
oughly, with a can of draft Guiness which I Accepted: 5 February 2007

40 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

Radical Constructivism:
A Scientific Research Program
Leslie P. Steffe A University of Georgia (USA) <>

ing model of knowing and learning. Glasers-

Purpose: In the paper, I discuss how Ernst Glasersfeld worked as a scientist on the project,
feld captured the intensity with which we
Interdisciplinary Research on Number (IRON), and explain how his scientific activity
approached our work in IRON2 in a passage
fueled his development of radical constructivism. I also present IRON as a progressive
in Thirty Years Radical Constructivism:
research program in radical constructivism and suggest the essential components of such
“We had heated arguments and for all of us
programs. Findings: The basic problem of Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism is to
it was a powerful lesson, hammering in the
explore the operations by means of which we assemble our experiential reality. Concep-
fundamental fact that what one observer
tual analysis is Glasersfeld’s way of doing science and he used it in IRON to analyze the
sees is not what another may see and that
units that young children create and count in the activity of counting. In his work in IRON,
a common view can be achieved only by a
Glasersfeld first conducted a first-order conceptual analysis of his own operations that
strenuous effort of mutual adaptation.”
produce units and number, and then participated in a second-order analysis of the language
(Glasersfeld 2005, p. 10)
and actions of children and inferred the mental operations that they use to produce units
This passage points to the countless hours
and number. Further, Glasersfeld used Piaget’s concept of equilibration in the context of
we spent trying to reach some semblance of a
scheme theory in a second-order analysis of children’s construction of number sequences
consensus concerning video-recorded mate-
and of more advanced ways and means of operating in the traffic of numbers.
rial of children’s numerical operating and the
Research Implications: The scientific method of first- and second-order conceptual anal-
way in which we operationalized the basic
ysis transcends our work in IRON and it is applicable in any radical constructivist research
tenets of radical constructivism. So it is natu-
program whose problem is to explore the operations by means of which we construct our
ral for me to portray Glasersfeld as a scientist
conceptions. Because of the difficulties involved with introspection, conducting second-
as well as to portray how his scientific work
order conceptual analyses is essential in exploring these operations and it involves analyz-
was a constitutive part of his development of
ing the language and actions of the observed. But conceptual analysis is only a part of the
radical constructivism.
research process because the researchers are by necessity already involved in creating
In the following text, I provide a brief
occasions of observation. The “experimenter” and the “analyst” can be the same person
account of our interdisciplinary work on how
or they can be different people. Either case involves intensive and sustained interdiscipli-
children construct number. After that, I por-
nary thinking and ways of working if the research program is to be maintained over a
tray IRON as a progressive research program
substantial period of time as a progressive research program.
in the sense of Lakatos (1970) and explain
Key Words: Scientific research program, attentional model, conceptual analysis.
how Glasersfeld’s work was essential in con-
stituting the program as progressive. I also
suggest how our work in IRON contributes to

It isicaleasyconstructivism
to read Glasersfeld’s texts on rad-
and interpret them
mological inquiry. So, I was delighted that my
account of how Glasersfeld regards radical
other radical constructivist research pro-
grams whose central problem is to explore the
as indicating that he regards radical construc- constructivism is compatible with Alexander operations that are involved in constructive
tivism as a finished model of knowing. How- Riegler’s characterization of the constructiv- activity.
ever, after working with Glasersfeld for a ist community at large as “a coherent and
rather extended period of time while he was largely consistent scientific effort to provide
developing his model of knowing, I fully answers to demanding complex problems” Explaining how children
believe that he does not regard radical con- (Riegler 2005, p. 1).
structivism in that way. Rather, my interpre- I came to know Glasersfeld as a scientist
construct number
tation is that he regards it as a continually through our intensive collaboration in the The IRON project began in 1975 after Gla-
evolving model whose evolution is fueled and project, Interdisciplinary Research on Num- sersfeld joined the Psychology Department at
sustained by the novel scientific work of its ber (IRON). Through that collaboration, I the University of Georgia in 1969 and after his
adherents.1 I feel justified in my belief experienced radical constructivism as a way colleague Charles Smock had introduced him
because, as I worked with Glasersfeld, I of thinking and learning when doing science. to the work of Piaget. One might wonder why
learned that his scientific work indeed fueled It was a part of who we were and how we an epistemologist, mathematics educators,
and sustained his philosophical and episte- thought, and I still regard it as a living, grow- and a philosopher of mathematics would

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 41
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

spend countless hours in heated arguments Piaget and his collaborators.4 This was a fun- means of operating with number might be
concerning children’s construction of num- damental factor in our work because it not like (Steffe, Hirstein, & Spikes 1976). It is of
ber. Perhaps the most salient reason is that only grounded our work in Piaget’s genetic great interest to me now that others studying
explaining how children construct number is epistemology, it also grounded our work in children’s construction of reading and writing
an extraordinarily compelling problem that the scientific work of the Genevans.5 have taken a similar approach to how to make
has far-reaching implications for solving It is crucial to point out that we each had progress in children’s education (Ferreiro
other such problems. In addition, it was our our own purposes for engaging in interdisci- 1991).
intention to establish a constructivist research plinary work. My educational purpose was to A major thing that I learned was that the
program in mathematics education that develop an itinerary for children’s construc- activity of counting is children’s primary
included mathematics teaching as a central tion of number that would be useful in the means of solving their arithmetical situations.
core. Also on our agenda was initiating a con- mathematics education of children and Gla- I also learned that there are major differences
structivist revolution in mathematics educa- sersfeld’s scientific purpose was to “study how in the units that children create when count-
tion to countermand the stranglehold that intelligence operates, of the ways and means it ing. For example, when finding how many
behaviorism had on the field in the United employs to construct a relatively regular checkers were hidden by two cloths, one hid-
States after the demise of the modern mathe- world out of the flow of its experience” (Gla- ing seven and the other five, some children
matics movement.3 But our most immediate sersfeld 1984, p. 32).6 Although we collabo- would sequentially put up seven fingers in
goal was to synthesize our different ways of rated on developing a model of how children synchrony with uttering “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,” and
thinking for the purpose of constructing an construct number, the fact that we did have then continue sequentially putting up the
explanatory model of children’s construction different purposes illustrates the power of our remaining three fingers in synchrony with
of number. interdisciplinary collaboration. uttering “8, 9, 10.” They would then fold all
We each brought results from our preced- fingers down and continue by sequentially
ing work to our discussions in IRON. I putting up two more fingers in synchrony
brought an experiential model of children’s The preliminary work with uttering “11, 12” and then say, “twelve.”
numerical operating that was developed as a This was in contrast with children who
result of longitudinal teaching experiments An experiential model couldn’t count unless they could actually see
and Glasersfeld brought his attentional model and/or touch the checkers, and in contrast
for the construction of units and number. Initially, I experimented with using Piaget’s with children who would simply start with
Before we began the interdisciplinary work of analysis of children’s construction of number “seven” and count on five more times (i.e., 7;
IRON, Glasersfeld, being the passionate and as a guide when working with children. 8-9-10-11-12”). There were other more
consummate scholar that he is, had read a Piaget’s analysis had led him to the following advanced ways of counting as well as other
substantial portion, if not all, of the books by position: variations of units.
“The development of number does not The first way that I described above
occur earlier than that of classes (classifi- regarding how some children counted is
ABOUT THE AUTHOR catory structures) or of asymmetrical indeed spectacular because the children cre-
Leslie P. Steffe earned a B.S. in mathematics transitive relations (serial structures), but ated their own units to count [sequentially
and physics from Morningside College in there is, on the contrary, a simultaneous putting up fingers] when intending to count
Sioux City, Iowa; a M.S. in mathematics from construction of classes, relations and checkers. In fact, at the time I believed that the
Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, numbers.” (Piaget 1966, p. 259) act of sequentially putting up fingers while
Kansas; and a Ph.D. in mathematics educa- His minimal criterion for children’s con- counting was the first indication of the pres-
tion from the University of Wisconsin in struction of number was operative one-to- ence of Piaget’s arithmetical unit. When chil-
Madison, Wisconsin. During his doctoral one correspondence that, in his model, was dren had to actually see and/or touch the
program, he served as a research associate made possible by the emergence of the arith- checkers in order to count, these acts still indi-
in the Wisconsin Research and Develop- metical unit. The stages in the construction of cated that the children were creating units to
ment Center working with Henry Van one-to-one correspondence exactly paral- count while counting, but they were more
Engen on research and development activ- leled those of the construction of operative immediately tied to their perceptual experi-
ities concerned with elementary school classification and seriation (Piaget 1966, ence in counting. When children simply said,
mathematics education. He joined the fac- 260ff), so I focused on classifying, ordering, “seven,” and then continued counting five
ulty of mathematics education at the Uni- and one-to-one correspondence as activities more times, this was a more solid indication
versity of Georgia in 1967 where he that might engender children’s construction of Piaget’s arithmetical unit. Piaget (1970)
currently serves as a distinguished research of number. Unfortunately, this effort proved was well aware of the importance of units, but
professor. He is best known in mathematics to be of questionable value. So, I abandoned his characterization was restricted to arith-
education for his interdisciplinary research Piaget’s analysis as a guide in how I operated metical units and he did not provide an
with Ernst von Glasersfeld and as the men- and turned to teaching young children for account of units at the sensory-motor level.
tor of outstanding doctoral students. rather extended stretches of time so that the For Piaget, arithmetical units are created
children might teach me what their ways and when; “Elements are stripped of their quali-

42 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

ties” (Piaget 1970, p. 37). He gave no account Glasersfeld’s model of pulsating moments “We use the term “collection” rather than
of children’s construction of units that pre- of attention provided an explanation of the “class” in the strict sense, because the
cede or follow arithmetical units nor did he mental operation that is involved in the con- former term carries no implication of a
give an account of mechanisms that do the struction of ordinary items of experience and hierarchical structure of class-inclusions.
stripping. the role these items play in the construction of However, these collections are no longer
When I began working with Glasersfeld in numerical units. He called the operation graphic, and objects are assigned to one
1975, as I suggested above, I had an extensive “unitizing.” A group of co-occurring sensory- collection or another on the basis of simi-
corpus of video-recorded material of children motor signals becomes a “whole” or “object” larity alone. (p. 47)
solving numerical problems as well as an when an unbroken sequence of attentional Assigning objects to a collection in this
experiential model of the units children create pulses is focused on these signals and the sense requires an abstraction beyond the
in counting activity. But I was yet to construct sequence is framed or bounded by an unfo- abstraction that is involved in recognizing a
a theoretical model for how the mind makes cused pulse at both ends. The unfocused particular sensory-motor item. It involves
the units that I observed the children making pulses provide closure and set the sequence of more because sensory-motor items are
as well as a theoretical model for children’s contiguous focused pulses apart from prior formed in the moment and there may be no
counting that explained the differences that I and subsequent attentional pulses. recollection of a preceding experience even
had observed. More importantly, I was yet to A focused moment of attention registers though a current item may be recognized.
explain how children constructed number. sensory material and an unfocused moment Categorizing sensory-motor items together
of attention can be regarded as a blank space. involves recollection of previously experi-
A hypothetical model of children’s The records of making a sensory-motor item, enced items,9 and re-focusing attention on
construction of units and number or an item of experience, were graphically the items is an act of taking them together, a
Although Glasersfeld was never involved in illustrated in terms of an attentional pattern as process that Glasersfeld called reprocessing or
the actual teaching experiments with chil- shown in Figure 1 (Glasersfeld 1981, p. 87). attentional iteration.
dren that I directed, he was highly engaged in Reprocessing sensory-motor items
the conceptual analyses7 of an extensive cor- I I I encourages focusing attention on the unitary
0 … 0
pus of the video-recorded material of chil- ab k wholeness of each item, which is an operation
dren solving numerical problems. I will never of unitizing the sensory-motor items. The
forget late one morning circa 1978 when Gla- Figure 1: An attentional pattern: unitary item produced is diagrammed in Fig-
sersfeld declared to me that, “I now under- Sensory-motor item ure 2 (1981, p. 89).
stand what mathematicians mean by a set!!”
This event signaled a major breakthrough in The unfocused moments of attention are I
our attempts to understand how the mind designated by “O” and bound the focused 0 0
makes the units in counting that I had moments of attention designated by “I.” The
observed, and it occurred prior to the publi- letters a, b, … , k designate sensory material Figure 2:The attentional structure of
cation of his seminal paper on the conceptual selected by attention and this sensory mate- a unitary item
construction of units and number (Glasers- rial is registered as records of experience. I
feld 1981). In formulating his model, Gla- emphasize that the attentional pattern or rec- Glasersfeld used the notation in Figure 2 to
sersfeld drew on his work with Silvio Ceccato ognition template is established as a result of designate a single attentional moment
whom he credits as the first to interpret the individual–environment interaction and the focused on the unitariness of a sensory-motor
structure of certain abstract concepts as pat- process it symbolizes constitutes a model of item. In this, n is used to denote the necessity
terns of attention (Ceccato 1974). According the operation that is involved in compound- of having some, but no particular, sensory-
to Glasersfeld, ing sensory-motor signals together in the motor material on which to focus. This devel-
“Attention is not to be understood as a immediate here-and-now to form items of opment of the unitizing operation opens the
state that can be extended over longish experience – the unitizing operation. possibility of the child categorizing non-
periods. Instead, I intend a pulselike suc- Sensory-motor items are isolated in expe- homogeneous items together on the basis of
cession of moments of attention, each one rience and there may be no element of recog- their unitariness or wholeness – “things” that
of which may or may not be ‘focused’ on nition in their establishment. If a child does go together because they are put together. Gla-
some neural event in the organism. By recognize an experiential item as having been sersfeld referred to these types of collections
‘focused’ I intend no more than that an experienced before, this constitutes the as lots to indicate that the categorization was
attentional pulse is made to coincide with beginnings of categorizing items together. not constrained to any particular perceptual
some other signal (from the multitude Categorizing, however, goes beyond the sim- material.
that more or less continuously pervades ple recognition of a sensory-motor item. It Reprocessing the items of lots encourage
the organism’s nervous system) and thus involves a sense of similarity in the way stripping sensory content from the unitary
allows it to be registered. An ‘unfocused’ explained by Inhelder & Piaget (1964) when items, which produces an abstract unit item
pulse is one that registers no content.” distinguishing graphic and nongraphic col- notated in Figure 3 on the next page (Glasers-
(Glasersfeld 1981, p. 85) lections. feld 1981, p. 91).

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 43

philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

tion of the critical video segments was essen- them from the unitary items. We also called
0 0 tial. The conceptual analysis in which Glasers- children who are restricted to creating per-
I feld engaged to produce the attentional model ceptual unit items when counting unitary
(0 0)
n was extraordinarily insightful scientific work, items counters of perceptual unit items.11
and his collaborative conceptual analysis in That some children of even six years of age
Figure 3:The attentional structure of constructing a model of children’s counting are restricted to creating perceptual unit items
the abstract unit item. types was every bit as insightful. in counting was not anticipated by Glasers-
feld’s model of units and number, nor was the
The construction of the abstract unit item abstraction that is necessary for children to
opens the possibility of using that item to A model of children’s make the next step in creating items in count-
recursively reprocess the items of lots. This ing when the unitary items are hidden from
recursive reprocessing can produce an atten-
counting types the children’s view. But it did provide an
tional structure called a composite unit – a unit Glasersfeld wasn’t as interested in his inter- essential tool to explain how children use
of abstract units – diagrammed in Figure 4. pretations of the children’s mathematical motor acts like putting up fingers, hitting
activity as he was in how the others in the their desk with a pencil, or some other rele-
0(0 I 0 0 I 0 0 I 0 0 I 0 0 I 0)0 project thought about the children’s mathe- vant motor act as countable items that are
matical activity. He did make his own inter- substitutes for hidden unitary items that they
Figure 4:The attentional structure of a pretations of the children’s numerical ways intend to count.
composite unit. and means of operating, but he always
checked his interpretations with the other Creating motor and verbal unit items
I have chosen to portray the composite members of the interdisciplinary project, and When children use their unitizing operation
unit in Figure 4 as containing only five this was the source of our heated argu- to unitize the proprioceptive sensation that is
abstract unit items to emphasize the role that ments.10 Through our collaborative work, I involved in counting, we called the results of
figurative patterns play in the initial construc- learned that conceptual analysis is an essential the operation motor unit items. It was neces-
tion of composite units containing five or part of doing science in mathematics educa- sary to use children’s capability to produce
fewer items (Glasersfeld 1982b). These struc- tion and I have used this kind of analysis in all visualized images of unitary items to explain
tures are what Glasersfeld meant by the emer- of my subsequent work in IRON and beyond. how children substitute motor unit items for
gence of sets in children.9 Through our discussions, an important hidden unitary items that they intend to
Even though the above development of the insight came to the fore that opened the way count. It seemed natural to call the re-pre-
attentional model is not complete, it does for major progress. The insight was that chil- sented unitary item a figural unit item and
portray what Glasersfeld brought to the scien- dren create the items they count in the activity characterized the substitution as occurring at
tific work on children’s construction of num- of counting. This is clearly demonstrated the level of re-presentation. We also called
ber. After explaining a series of abstractions when a child appears to count specific items children who are restricted to creating motor
that produced these items, he commented in a situation where no items of that kind are unit items as substitutes for hidden unitary
that: within the child’s perceptual field in the way unit items when counting counters of motor
“It now remains to be seen whether this that I described children establishing putting unit items.
model provides a new and more successful up fingers as unit items when counting hid- Counters of motor unit items always start
approach to an understanding of the still den checkers in my experiential model. Creat- counting with “one” as do counters of verbal
problematic activities of counting and the ing motor unit items as substitutes for hidden unit items, which is the next unit item we iso-
operations involved in establishing specific unitary items is the culmination of a rather lated in children’s counting. When children
numerosities.” (Glasersfeld 1981, p. 94) intricate development in the child. Involved unitize the vocal productions when counting
The preceding quotation captures the ini- in that development is the progressive ability motor unit items, the vocal productions come
tial thrust of our collaborative scientific work to create unit items on the basis of, first, to be used as substitutes for the motor unit
in IRON, where our attempt was to use what visual, auditory, and tactual perception, and items. The motor unit items are dropped out
was then an evolving version of Glasersfeld’s then proprioceptive sensation (Steffe, Gla- because simply saying a number word signi-
hypothetical model in constructing the unit sersfeld, Richards, & Cobb 1983, p. 116). fies them.
items that children create as they count. An
indispensable step in constructing a model of Creating perceptual unit items Creating abstract unit items
children’s counting types involved our recur- When children use their unitizing operation The abstract unit item was the next countable
sively returning to critical segments of the recursively to unitize sensory-motor items, as unit item in the progression of the types of
videotaped material that I had developed. I noted above, Glasersfeld used “unitary units children create while counting. Count-
This was an indispensable step because Gla- items” to refer to the result. In the model of ing-on, as I describe below, is the behavioral
sersfeld’s attentional model constituted a new counting types, we decided to call the unit indicator of the ability to use the abstract unit
way of thinking about how children construct items that children create when counting uni- item in acts of counting. Given, for example,
units of all kinds, so a continual reinterpreta- tary items perceptual unit items to distinguish the following task: “There are seven marbles

44 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

in this cup” (rattling the marbles in the cup). 1955). In the paper, Glasersfeld portrays how Radical constructivism
“Here are four more marbles” (placing four the infant comes to be but one element or
marbles on the table). “How many marbles entity among others in a universe that he or she as the core of scientific
are there in all?” Glasersfeld analyzed count- has gradually constructed for him-or herself research programs
ing-on as follows. out of the elementary particles of experience.
“If the child says there are seven in the cup, This powerful insight into the child’s construc- Glasersfeld’s work in IRON demonstrates
and proceeds to count the additional mar- tion of his or her ordinary items of experience how radical constructivism can constitute
bles, “8, 9, 10, 11 – eleven!” it suggests that serves as a justification that, from the outset, the core of a scientific research program.
in uttering “seven” the child knows that the the knower and the things of or about which he “All scientific research programmes may
number word, in the given context, stands or she comes to know are separate and inde- be characterized by their ‘hard core.’ The
for a specific collection of individual uni- pendent entities is not viable. negative heuristic13 of the programme
tary items that satisfy the template called The connection between Glasersfeld’s forbids us to direct the modus tollens at
‘marble’ and that, if counted, they could be model of the unitizing operation and Piaget’s this ‘hard core’.” (Lakatos 1970, p. 133)
coordinated with utterances of the num- account of the child’s construction of experi- Lakatos used “hard core” but I prefer to
ber words from ‘one’ to ‘seven.’ The child ential reality resides in the realization that the use just “core” because the adjective “hard”
knows this and therefore does not have to unitizing operation provides an opening to can indicate a non-changing core although
run through the activities that would actu- study mental operations of the mind that are this is not what Lakatos intended: “The
ally implement it on the level of sensory- involved. actual hard core of a programme does not
motor experience.” (Steffe et al. 1983, “Radical constructivism maintains – not actually emerge fully armed … . It develops
p. 42) unlike Kant in his Critique – that the slowly, by a long, preliminary process of trial
Such counters can also mentally “run operations by means of which we assemble and error” (p. 133). Although I wouldn’t say
through” counting activity starting with our experiential world can be explored, that it has changed by trial and error, it is
other number words and count so many more and that an awareness of this operating … indeed the case that the core of IRON has
times. They can turn anything whatever into can help us do it differently and, perhaps, changed since it began.
countable items because counting has better.” (Glasersfeld 1984, p. 18)
become a reflective process in Piagetian terms Our work using the attentional model in First- and second-order analyses
and, as such, it is “operative” rather than “fig- specifying the types of units children use in Glasersfeld’s model of units and number
urative”.12 counting constituted an exploration of those definitely should be a part of the core of any
operations of the mind that are involved in radical constructivist research program
assembling not only experiential reality, but whose goal is to explore the operations by
Fueling and sustaining mathematical reality as well. Husserl also pro- means of which we construct our concep-
posed, “that the mental operation that unites tions. When I consider the architecture of
the radical aspect of different sense impressions into the concept the units and composite units that we pro-
radical constructivism of “thing” is similar to the operation that duced when constructing the counting-
unites abstract units into the concept of num- types model, and the operations that chil-
Even though the above discussion of our work ber” (Glasersfeld, 2006, p. 65). So, given that dren perform using these units as input,14 I
on counting types is necessarily brief, I have children construct what Glasersfeld calls consider the counting types model as modi-
sketched some of the results of Glasersfeld’s sci- experiential realities out of elementary parti- fying the attentional model. For example,
entific work on matters of crucial importance cles of experience, one can infer that children the concept of a figural unit item arose in
in the mathematics education of children as construct their mathematical realities using analyzing children’s counting behavior and
well as in radical constructivism. It is impor- their experiential realities. That is, one can this unit is not presented in the attentional
tant to point out that our work formed an infer that a child’s mathematics is abstracted model. The motor and verbal unit items
essential connection with Piaget’s genetic epis- from his or her experiential reality and it is were also not presented. These unit types
temology (Glasersfeld 1982a). In a paper that not given from the outset as an entity inde- certainly are not restricted to children’s
represents his early analysis of Piaget’s genetic pendent of the child. This analysis definitely counting [e.g., sign language]. So, there is a
epistemology (Glasersfeld 1974), Glasersfeld served in fueling and sustaining the radical reciprocal relationship between the atten-
provided an extensive discussion of Piaget’s aspect of radical constructivism: tional model and the counting-types model
research that undermines the belief that, the “Radical constructivism is, thus, radical in that essential elements of the latter
knower and the things of which, or about because it breaks with convention and become knowledge of the analyst that can be
which, he or she comes to know are, from the develops a theory of knowledge in which used in further analyses.
outset, separate and independent entities. The knowledge does not reflect an “objective” Glasersfeld produced his model of units
basic research that he drew from is Piaget’s ontological reality, but exclusively an and number by using mental operations to
account of the child’s construction of the con- ordering and organization of a world con- analyze his own conceptions of units and
cept of an object that has some kind of perma- stituted by our experience.” (Glasersfeld number. So, I refer to his analysis as a first-
nence in his stream of experience (Piaget 1984, p. 24) order analysis. The goal of a first-order anal-

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 45

philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

ysis concerns specifying the mental opera- When I first read these principles, I dis- which we construct our experiential worlds.
tions that produce particular conceptions of tinctly recollect how they encapsulated In what I consider as one of Glasersfeld’s most
the analyst. It is an analysis of first-order much of the content of radical constructiv- important papers for mathematics education,
models, which are models the analyst has ism that was known to me at that time. The he commented that:
constructed to organize, comprehend, and second principle, of course, is a restatement “Piaget’s conception of assimilation and
control his or her experience; that is, the ana- of the radical aspect of radical constructiv- accommodation remain incomprehensi-
lyst’s own knowledge. The distinction I am ism. I mention them because they cut across ble unless it is placed within the frame-
making between the mental operations that radical constructivist research programs of work of his theory of knowledge and, spe-
produce particular conceptions of the ana- all kinds.16 But I do not regard the funda- cifically, into the context that he calls
lyst and those conceptions is crucial in mental principles as explanatory principles schéme. “Schemes” are basic sequences of
understanding how the knowledge of in the way that we used the attentional model events that consist of three parts. An initial
researchers can be used in radical construc- for units and number in constructing expla- part that serves as trigger or occasion. …
tivist research programs concerned with nations of the units that children create in The second part, that follows upon it, is an
exploring the operations by means of which counting. Rather, researchers construct action … or an operation … . These two
we construct our conceptions. It is crucial models in what Lakatos called the protective are, as a rule, explicitly mentioned when
because these operations are involved in pro- belt of the core of the research program that schemes are discussed. The third part is
ducing second-order models. corroborates the core principles, such as often only implied, but that doesn’t make
When the goal is to explore operations by Glasersfeld’s analysis of Piaget’s research on it any less important: it is what I call the
means of which human beings construct children’s construction of permanent result or sequel of the activity.”17 (Glasers-
mathematics, following Piaget (1970), this objects and our analysis of children’s count- feld 1980, p. 81).
involves exploring children’s constructive ing types. Analogous to the collaborative scientific
activity.15 In the exploration, we construct work that produced our explanation of chil-
second-order models, which are models an A progressive research program dren’s counting types, Glasersfeld’s concep-
observer constructs of the observed person’s Although the book Children’s counting types: tual analysis of scheme, assimilation, accom-
knowledge in order to explain their observa- Philosophy, theory, and application was a modation, and perturbation18, served in our
tions (Steffe, et al. 1983, p. xvi). Because the landmark publication in IRON, we only collaborative scientific work in accounting for
goal of the analyst in constructing second- used those core principles that were useful to children’s construction of number sequences
order models concerns constructing concep- us in the work that produced the book. after the teaching experiment had concluded.
tual operations that explain the observed Essentially, after the publication of this Five stages emerged in the constructive activ-
language and actions or interactions of the book, we still had not explained how chil- ity – two pre-numerical counting19 schemes
observed person, I refer to it as a second- dren construct number sequences. We had and three distinctly different numerical
order analysis. The analysis in which we explained the units that children create in counting schemes20 along with an explana-
engaged to produce the counting-types the activity of counting and hypothesized tion of the transitional accommodations
model was a second-order analysis in which that they formed a developmental progres- (Steffe, Cobb, & Glasersfeld 1988). We also
we used the results of Glasersfeld’s first- sion, but we had not explained children’s accounted for children’s construction of add-
order analysis. The reciprocal relationship counting in terms of number sequences nor ing and subtracting schemes within each of
between first- and second-order analyses is had we specified the accommodations that the stages. These number sequences quickly
basic in radical constructivist research pro- produced the number sequences. So, I became part of the explanatory constructs of
grams because it illustrates that researchers retreated into mathematics education and the IRON research program and were subse-
and their ways and means of operating and Glasersfeld retreated into his theoretical quently used to explain children’s construc-
observing constitute the research programs. work. I launched a new teaching experiment tion of multiplying and dividing schemes
because, in mathematics education, building (Steffe 1994).
The fundamental principles of the experiential models precedes building theo- Although Glasersfeld retired from the
core retical models. University of Georgia in 1987 and joined the
The fundamental principles of radical con- At the same time as I began the teaching Scientific Reasoning Research Institute at the
structivism that Glasersfeld presented in experiment, Glasersfeld was fortunately University of Massachusetts, that did not stop
1989 were already a defining a part of the working on a paper in which he interpreted our scientific collaboration. After the work
core of IRON even though the principles had Piaget’s concept of equilibration and the two with children’s construction of multiplying
not been as explicitly stated. activities that constitute it, assimilation and and dividing schemes, another problem shift
“1. Knowledge in not passively received accommodation, in the context of scheme occurred in IRON that became known as the
but built up by the cognizing subject. theory. There was no agreement between the reorganization hypothesis: children’s frac-
“2. The function of cognition is adaptive, two of us that we would work on mutually tional schemes can emerge as accommodations
and serves the organization of the experi- compatible problems, but I wouldn’t say that in their numerical counting schemes. Glasers-
ential world, not the discovery of onto- it was fortuitous either because we were both feld worked as a consultant on this project
logical reality.” concerned with exploring operations by throughout its duration and was more than

46 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

tangentially involved in the conceptual analy- Final comments cation as a very exciting field and marks it as
ses of the video-recorded material that was an evolving and changing professional prac-
produced when teaching children fractions. I have tried to say enough to portray IRON as tice. Glasersfeld has said in many places that
That the hypothesis was confirmed (Olive an evolving and changing scientific research radical constructivism doesn’t tell you what to
1999; Olive & Steffe, 2002; Steffe, 2002; Tzur program. From the time we started to work do. His comment marks an essential attitude
1999) is, according to Lakatos, essential to together onwards, Glasersfeld developed the in how radical constructivism is used. One
claim that the IRON research program is a fundamental principles of radical construc- does not simply apply radical constructivism.
progressive program because the confirma- tivism concurrently with using them in inter- Rather, one builds living models of radical
tions involved novelties not predicted by the disciplinary scientific work. Although the constructivism that do not countermand its
hypothesis. results of his analytical work proved to be of basic principles such as a constructivist
“Finally, let’s call a problem shift progres- more immediate use than the results of his school of mathematics.
sive if it is both theoretically and empiri- philosophical and epistemological work, the The members of the IRON research pro-
cally progressive, and degenerating if it is second fundamental principle of constructiv- gram did indeed set a revolution in motion in
not.” (Lakatos 1970, p. 118) ism is essential in establishing what I think of school mathematics and Glasersfeld was at
The explanatory constructs of IRON were as a constructivist school mathematics. the vortex of that revolution. But the influ-
continually expanded to include an organiza- The primary difference between a con- ence of constructivism manifest in profes-
tion of schemes of action and operation that I structivist and a conventional school mathe- sional recommendations for reform in math-
call the mathematics of students. Aspects of matics resides in one’s conception of school ematics education primarily concerned the
these schemes would be explanatory princi- mathematics. In the latter case, school math- first principle of radical constructivism with-
ples of other radical constructivist research ematics is regarded as a thing-in-itself inde- out consideration of the second principle
programs that explicitly include dynamic pendently of human thought and experience (National Council of Teachers of Mathemat-
equilibrium, assimilation, accommodation, and, in the former case, school mathematics ics 1989, 2000). As a result, recommendations
and scheme theory because they elaborate is constituted by the results of conceptual for what was to be taught were not based on
Glasersfeld’s concept of scheme in significant analyses, which are models of mathematical the second principle. But the constructivist
ways such as the counting-types model elab- thinking and learning. These models consist revolution in mathematics education has not
orated his attentional model of units and of an organization of mathematical schemes run out of steam, and as long as radical con-
number. Toward that end, the architecture of of operation and the accommodations of structivist research programs like the IRON
a scheme presented by Glasersfeld does not these schemes that children produce as a program remain in a progressive phase, these
include, for example, reversible schemes, result of interactive mathematical communi- research programs will serve to sustain and
recursive schemes that take the scheme as its cation. The models can open possibilities for intensify the revolution. That is the legacy of
own input, schemes that are the result of mathematics teachers to construct their own Ernst von Glasersfeld’s work in mathematics
coordinating a more basic scheme with the school mathematics in conjunction with their education.
operations involved in producing a unit of children. In fact, the models should be
unit of units, or schemes that function at dif- regarded as providing possibilities for teach-
fering levels of interiorization. So, rather than ers to explain their students’ mathematical Acknowledgments
present the numerical schemes of the IRON language and actions and for teachers’ goal
research program per se as a part of the setting. Thinking of a constructivist school I would like to thank Amy Hackenberg, John
explanatory constructs of compatible mathematics as a dynamic organization of Olive, Erik Tillema, Ron Tzur, Pat Thompson,
research programs, the schemes’ architecture mathematical schemes of operation in the and two anonymous reviewers for their com-
is what is relevant. mental life of teachers casts mathematics edu- ments on earlier drafts of this article.

Notes mathematics education and the zeitgeist 7. Conceptual analysis was imported by Gla-
in which we operated. sersfeld through his work with Ceccato
1. Here, I am speaking of radical constructiv- 4. In fact, Glasersfeld said that he used “rad- and widely used in the IRON project. A
ism on the intersubjective level (cf. Glaser- ical” for the first time in a paper in which conceptual analysis is an analysis of what
sfeld 1995, p. 120). he interpreted the epistemological aspects might constitute the mental operations of
2. The philosopher, John Richards, was an of the work of Piaget (Glasersfeld 1974). others. When used to explain children’s
initial member as well as Patrick Thomp- 5. I use “Genevans” to refer to not only to behavior, the aim is to produce thick de-
son and Paul Cobb who were then doctor- Piaget, but to his collaborators as well. scriptions of conceptual operations that,
al students. 6. John Richard’s purpose was to reconsti- were children to have them, might result
3. See Steffe & Kieren (1994) for an historical tute the philosophical foundations of in them thinking in the way they do (Th-
account of the rise of constructivism in mathematics. ompson & Saldanha, 2003).

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 47

philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

8. When an attentional pattern is used in cat- counting types model came to supersede IRON is similar with the exception that the
egorizing sensory-motor items together, the experiential model at a higher level of work is embedded in mathematics teaching
Piaget’s (1955) studies on object perma- abstraction with new organization and and learning as well as in development.
nence indicate that children have devel- structure. 16.IRON wasn’t the only research program
oped the capability to use attentional 11.To find how many checkers are in a lot of influenced by Glasersfeld. He has also
patterns to produce visualized images of checkers, these children need to actually worked in family therapy (Steffe & Gale
sensory-motor items that they can recog- see or feel the checkers in order to create 1995), science education (Larochelle, Bed-
nize (Glasersfeld 1995). These images pro- perceptual unit items in counting. narz, & Garrison 1998), and psychothera-
vide the child with an awareness of an 12.Children do not count abstract units per py (Kenny 1988), among others.
experiential item apart from its location in se. Rather, they use the records of experi- 17.Schemes can be interpreted as negative
immediate experience. ence in their abstract unit item to produce feedback loops (Glasersfeld 1995).
9. I have only underscored the emergence of a figurative or a sensory-motor unit items 18.Dynamic equilibration, assimilation, ac-
composite units. Children must learn to in an act of counting. commodation, perturbation, and scheme
use these nascent structures as input for 13.The paths of research to be avoided. are all core principles.
operating further, such as disembedding a 14.A composite unit, similar to an arithmeti- 19.We called these two counting schemes the
subpart from a composite unit, joining cal unit, implies an ensemble of operations perceptual counting scheme and the figu-
two composite units together, removing that produce a unit of units. rative counting scheme.
items from composite units, etc. 15.Piaget attempted to explain the construction 20.We called these numerical counting
10.Our attempts to establish intersubjective of mathematics developmentally in his pro- schemes the initial, tacitly nested, and ex-
agreement were very difficult because the gram of genetic epistemology. The work in plicitly nested number sequences.

References Glasersfeld, von E. (1982a). An interpretation Lakatos, I. (1970) Falsification and the meth-
of Piaget’s constructivism. Revue Interna- odology of scientific research programs.
Ceccato, S. (1974) In the garden of choices. In: tionale de Philosophie 36(4): 612–635. In: Lakatos, I. & Musgrave, A. (eds.) Criti-
Smock, C. D. & Glasersfeld, von E. (eds.) Glasersfeld, von E. (1982b). Subitizing: The cism and the growth of knowledge. Cam-
Epistemology and education. Follow role of figural patterns in the development bridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.
Through Publications: Athens GA, pp. of numerical concepts. Archives de Psy- 91–195.
125–142. chologie 50: 191–218. Larochelle, M., Bednarz, N. & Garrison, J.
Ferreiro, E. (1991) Literacy acquisition and Glasersfeld, von E. (1984) An introduction to (eds.) (1998) Constructivism and educa-
the representation of language. In: Kamii, radical constructivism. In: Watzlawick, P. tion. Cambridge University Press: Cam-
C., Manning, M. & Manning, C. (eds.). (ed.) The invented reality. W. W. Norton: bridge.
Early literacy: A constructivist foundation New York, pp. 17–40. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
for whole language. Washington DC: NEA Glasersfeld, von E. (1989) Constructivism in (1989) Curriculum and evaluation stan-
Professional Library, pp. 31–55. education. In: Husen, T. & Postlethwaite, dards for school mathematics. Author:
Glasersfeld, von E. (1974) Piaget and the rad- N. (eds.) International encyclopedia of Reston VA.
ical constructivist epistemology. In: education (Supplementary Volume). Per- National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
Smock, C. D. & Glasersfeld, E. von (eds.) gamon: Oxford, pp. 162–163. (2000) Principles and standards for school
Epistemology and education. Follow Glasersfeld, von E. (1995) Radical construc- mathematics. Author: Reston VA.
Through Publications: Athens GA, pp. 1– tivism: A way of knowing and learning. Olive, J. (1999) From fractions to rational
24. Reprinted in: Glasersfeld, von E. Falmer Press: London. numbers of arithmetic: A reorganization
(1987) The construction of knowledge: Glasersfeld, von E. (2005) Thirty years radical hypothesis. Mathematical Thinking and
Contributions to conceptual semantics. constructivism. Constructivist Founda- Learning 1: 279–314.
Intersystems Publications: Seaside CA. tions 1(1): 9–12. Olive, J. & Steffe, L. P. (2002) The construc-
Glasersfeld, von E. (1980) The concept of Glasersfeld, von E. (2006) A constructivist tion of an iterative fractional scheme: The
equilibration in a constructivist theory of approach to experiential foundations of case of Joe. Journal of Mathematical
knowledge. In Benseler, F., Hejl, P. M. & mathematical concepts revisited. Con- Behavior 20: 413–437.
Kock, W. K. (eds.) Autopoisis, communi- structivist Foundations 1(2): 61–72. Piaget, J. (1955) The child’s construction of
cation, and society. Campus Verlag: Inhelder, B. & Piaget, J. (1964) The early reality. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.
Frankfurt/M., pp. 75–85. growth of logic in the child. The Norton Piaget, J. (1966) Some convergences between
Glasersfeld, von E. (1981) An attentional Library: New York. formal and genetic analyses. In: Beth, E. W.
model for the conceptual construction of Kenny, V. (1988) Radical constructivism, & Piaget, J. (eds.) Mathematical episte-
units and number. Journal for Research in autopoiesis & psychotherapy. The Irish mology and psychology. D. Reidel: Boston,
Mathematics Education 12(2): 33–96. Journal of Psychology 9(1): 25–82. pp. 259–280. First published in 1965 by

48 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism

Ernst von Glasersfeld holding skis at St. Anton (Austria) 1999 (photo by Jack Lochhead).

Presses Universitaires de France, Paris as grade arithmetic content. Technical Steffe, L. P. (2002) A new hypothesis concern-
Volume XIV of the “Études d’ Épistémolo- Report No. 9. Project for Mathematical ing children’s fractional knowledge. Jour-
gie Génétiqué” Development of Children: Tallahassee, FL. nal of Mathematical Behavior 20: 267–
Piaget, J. (1970) Genetic epistemology. ERIC Document Reproduction Service 307.
Colombia University Press: New York. No. ED144808. Thompson, P. W. & Saldanha, L. (2003) Frac-
Riegler, A. (2005) Editorial. The constructiv- Steffe, L. P. & Kieren, T. (1994) Radial con- tions and multiplicative reasoning. In: Kil-
ist challenge. Constructivist Foundations structivism and mathematics education. patrick, J. & Martin, G. (eds.) Research
1(1): 1–8. Journal for Research in Mathematics Edu- companion to the NCTM Standards.
Steffe, L. P., Cobb, P. & Glasersfeld, von E. cation 26(6): 711–733. National Council of Teachers of Mathe-
(1988) Construction of arithmetical Steffe, L. P., Richards, J., Glasersfeld, von E., Y matics: Washington DC, pp. 95–114.
meanings and strategies. Springer: New Cobb, P. (1983) Children’s counting types: Tzur, R. (1999) An integrated study of chil-
York. Philosophy, theory, and application. New dren’s construction of improper fractions
Steffe, L. & Gale, J. (eds.) (1995) Constructiv- York: Praeger. and the teacher’s role in promoting that
ism in education. Lawrence Erlbaum Steffe, L. P. (1994) Children’s multiplying learning. Journal for Research in Mathe-
Associates: Hillsdale NJ. schemes. In G. Harel, & J. Confrey (eds.) matics Education 30: 390–416.
Steffe, L. P. & Hirstein, J. & Spikes, C. (1976) Multiplicative reasoning in the learning of
Quantitative comparison and class inclu- mathematics. SUNY Press: Albany NY, pp. Received: 25 August 2006
sion as readiness variables for learning first 3–39. Accepted: 11 December 2006

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 49

educational radical constructivism

The Challenge of
Understanding Radical Constructivism
Dewey I. Dykstra, Jr. A Boise State University (USA) <>

To say “it is” is to grasp for permanence.

To say “it is not” is to adopt the view of nihilism. Purpose:This contribution to the Festschrift honoring Ernst von Glasersfeld gives some
Therefore a wise person insight into the perpetual problem of understanding radical constructivism (RC). Parallels
Does not say “exists” or “does not exist.” with the Middle Way school of Buddhism appear to shed light on this challenge.
– Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika, Conclusions:The hegemony realism has over the thinking of even the most highly edu-
2nd century C.E. (Garfield 1995, Chapter 15:10) cated in our civilization plays a major role in their failure to understand RC. Those still
subject to realism in their thinking interpret statements by those in RC in ways incom-
patible with RC. Until realists disequilibrate over mismatches between realist expecta-
T oone’s
honestly agree or disagree with some-
position, one must first under- tions and experiences, no alternative way of thinking is accessible to them and
misinterpretations of RC will continue. Practical implications:While we cannot change
stand that person’s position. Only then can
one really decide about the other person’s someone else’s understanding, in our interactions with them we can focus on creating
position. situations in which those who do not understand us might disequilibrate. If we are suc-
Many people have expressed disagreement cessful, they are likely to begin to escape the domination of realism in their thinking.
with von Glasersfeld’s notion of radical con- Value:This insight may enable eventual success in our assisting others to understand RC.
structivism.1 The list of references to the Key words: Realism, Buddhism, disequilibration.
expressions of disagreement in print is very
large. In addition there are probably gigabytes Coming from a different experience, his- The problem with the
of such expressions on-line. Much of the tory and philosophy of physics, Max Jammer
debate has been on a philosophical level, (1957, p. 2) seems to be referring to the same debates about radical
removed at least somewhat from applica- thing when in the middle of the last century constructivism
tion.2 But some have gone so far as to claim he wrote:
that radical constructivism is dangerous “As a result of modern research in physics,
The issue of initial assumptions
when applied to education.3 the ambition and hope, still cherished by
Most, if not all, of these lines of disagree- most authorities of the last century, that Every position, paradigm or ideology that
ment with radical constructivism have one physical science could offer a photo- describes the nature of human knowing is
aspect in common. They are expositions of graphic picture and true image of reality based on its own particular set of initial
how radical constructivism contains contra- had to be abandoned.” assumptions. Initial assumptions are at best
dictions with the basic premises of realism. Still, the realist position is alive and well in taken on belief and fit with experience.4 It
Unfortunately, this common thread is not physics, as evidenced by this comment from appears the initial assumptions of a culture
acknowledged. de la Torre and Zamorano (2001, p. 103): are uncritically adopted as an implicit part of
“…we postulate the objective existence of one’s milieu by those less careful or thought-
physical reality that can be known to our ful. Initial assumptions cannot be known to
A fundamental minds… with an ever growing precision by be true. They cannot be proved.
the subtle play of theory and experiment.” If one discovers an initial assumption does
difference It appears that a consequence of the realist not fit experience, then the logical structure
The basic position of radical constructivism is position is: everything is ultimately about the built on this assumption is at least suspect, if
fundamentally incommensurate with that of truth, which can be known. Furthermore, in not demolished. No challenges to radical con-
realism. Von Glasersfeld (1999a, [13]) puts realism, when comparing two statements structivism seem to explore this avenue.
forth the essential difference: about the world it must be possible to deter- Initial assumptions are usually very hard,
“What differentiates radical constructivism mine which is closer to the truth. On the other if not impossible, to test. Even if one were to
from the tradition, is the proposal unequiv- hand, in radical constructivism, truth is not come to understand another view and its ini-
ocally to give up the notion that knowledge the point because such truth is not accessible. tial assumptions, understanding the initial
ought to be a veridical ‘representation’ of a In radical constructivism our ways of know- assumptions generally reveals how well they
world as it ‘exists’ prior to being experi- ing do not access such truth. Hence, the two too fit experience.5 In the end we come back
enced (that is, ontological reality).” positions could hardly be more different. to the realization that to choose a set of initial

50 Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3
educational radical constructivism

assumptions from which to operate is either To challenge a view ism is a prior principle or schematum for
an act of faith or an arbitrary decision. the synthetic understanding of itself. {4}
Observing then that thoughtful people work I falter here, as Kant did: I am seeking to
The standards of logic diligently and carefully to reason appropri- make objectively valid statements about a
Each paradigm generally operates by the rules ately from initial assumptions and that the document that specifies such statements
of logical operations agreed upon by all across initial assumptions too are subjected to are logically undecidible. {5} One is dis-
paradigms.6 The structures and conclusions intense scrutiny to check how well they fit couraged from doing the heavy lifting
of each paradigm are merely the proper experience, how can one judge a paradigm? required here when no matter how intel-
results of these logical operations starting Beyond previous experience, the only way is lectually conscientious one is, the reduc-
from a particular set of initial assumptions. to test its usefulness. Do the predictions tion to ‘a mere matter of personal opin-
For this reason the structures and conclusions made from it fit experience? Can it be used to ion’ cannot be logically defeated. {6} Or
of one paradigm cannot be expected to be successfully accomplish desirable goals? As the retort, ‘Well, if radical constructivism
consistent with another paradigm based on von Glasersfeld (1999a, [3]) has put it: works for you, that’s fine!’ {7} No matter
different initial assumptions. “Ultimately, of course, a way of thinking what radical constructivism officially
These things being the case, the structures must not only be claimed feasible but, in states, its originators were seeking episte-
and conclusions from a paradigm can only be order to become attractive, its advantages mological ‘Truth’.”8
judged faulty or incorrect, if it can be demon- must be shown in action.” In the rather long sentence {1} two
strated that there is an error in logic at some We shall come back to some evidence of attributes of radical constructivism deemed
point after the initial assumptions, that faulty the usefulness of radical constructivism later incompatible are presented. Attribute {i}
data have been used or that the conclusions in this piece. refers to a desire for radical constructivism
do not fit experience. A claim that a conclu- to be “most “efficient” among others by
sion from one paradigm is false because it means of a criterion of judgment that is …
does not fit another paradigm is trivial and Evidence of the logical selected in a non-arbitrary manner.” Of
non-sequitur. Conclusions from within a par- course, it would be “violating its own Canon
ticular paradigm are not intended to apply to
error: An example of the subjectivity of…utility,” (attribute
another paradigm and cannot logically be Consider an example illustrating the logical {ii}) if it were to attempt to demonstrate it is
required to apply to that other paradigm’s dif- errors made by realists attempting to prove the most superior by non-arbitrary criteria
ferent set of initial assumptions. It is impor- radical constructivism wrong, useless or of judgment. Stated this way there does
tant to note that since such conclusions are dangerous. The point in bringing up this appear to be a paradox. But, in radical con-
intended to fit experience, another paradigm example and commentary is not to demon- structivism, one would neither claim to have
with different initial assumptions may indeed strate the superiority of one view over the most efficient explanation or theory nor
have an entirely different conclusion to fit the another, but the logical errors typically made that there could be non-arbitrary criteria of
same experience. Both sets of conclusions are in such arguments. judgment. One might claim that an explana-
equally valid, each in their own paradigm. One can see the persistence of realist tion fits or enables one to be effective at
Sadly, few, if any, of the arguments offered assumptions in the following comment by something, but having the most efficient
in the many publications and gigabytes of on- Owen (1999, [4]) in response to von Glasers- explanation is not required. We can never
line discussion attempt to point out an error feld’s paper (1999a).7(Sentences have been prove there is not another “more efficient”
in logic from the basic premise of radical con- numbered in arabic numerals surrounded explanation out there. Nonetheless, to be
structivism or from faulty data. They all make by curled brackets to facilitate reference in effective or even apparently more effective,
the strategic blunder of pointing out errors in the following analysis.) does no more than to suggest a degree of fit
radical constructivism as if it must be com- “{1}The Archimedian predicament above with experience.
mensurate with realism. Hence, much effort is joined by the much-discussed paradox- Sentences {2} & {3} explicitly reveal the
has been expended in this program to prove icality when radical constructivism tries belief that the goal of radical constructivism
radical constructivism wrong, but to no avail. to observe itself and construct a theoreti- is validity. That Owen wrote to this effect is
There are two problems with this strategy. cal similitude of itself that can be {i} evidence that his thinking about radical con-
One, as has been pointed out, is the logical selected as the most ‘efficient’ among oth- structivism is subject to realist criteria. Cer-
error that conclusions must be universally ers by means of a criterion of judgment tainly, if by validity one means truth, or
applicable instead of dependent on the initial that is likewise selected in a non-arbitrary closer proximity to truth, then this is neither
assumptions from which they are derived. manner, while {ii} avoiding the appear- the goal nor the claim of radical constructiv-
The other is that such lines of reasoning reveal ance of violating its own Canon of the ism.
that their architects are not operating from subjectivity of efficiency or utility. {2} The intent expressed in sentence {4} is to
the initial assumptions of radical constructiv- How can a Doctrine of the Subjectivity of make “objectively valid statements.” This is a
ism. Such arguments are not likely to impress ‘Knowledge’ describe itself in generally realist goal, not a radical constructivist goal.
the thoughtful observer of such debates, let valid terms? {3 } After all, we cannot claim In sentences {5} & {6} the dilemma presented
alone change someone’s mind. that the Doctrine of radical constructriv- is the conflict between the desire to logically

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 51

educational radical constructivism

defeat something that does not yield to such ple who can make proper sense of the phe- A possible parallel with
methods. Apparently, intellectual “heavy nomena.
lifting” is only rewarded by achieving the Both authors do seem to be able to give Buddhist thought
goal of logically disproving something or at accurate descriptions of these facets of radi- There are probably readers of these words
least the possibility of logically disproving cal constructivism, but just as they are clear more conversant with Buddhism11 than the
something. Finally, in sentence {7} is the in their descriptions, they clearly fail to rec- author, but it appears that there is a school of
claim that radical constructivist adherents ognize the logical error of expecting radical thought in Buddhism that arrived at ideas
are really “seeking epistemological ‘Truth’,” constructivism to be consistent with the ini- similar to those in radical constructivism,
in spite of what is stated explicitly in the arti- tial assumptions it has discarded: those of albeit by a different path.12 It has been
cle Owen is commenting upon. It seems realism.10 This does not make radical con- explained that these schools of thought are to
clear, at least from these words, that the real- structivism right, but it renders the argu- be considered a sequence one moves through
ist view is most consistent with the desired ments of these authors invalid. From the or can move through in thinking about the
methods and goals: that thinking and logic radical constructivist position, attempting nature of what we know and how we know
can enable us to prove which of two positions to make such arguments is inappropriate. it.13 The final school of thought is called the
is closer to a veridical picture of reality. Where did these non-radical constructiv- Middle Way. An expression of the Middle Way
Again, apparently, the point is to come to a ist notions come from? The most likely ori- is the opening passage by Nagarjuna. The
true picture of reality, which can be arrived gin could be the realism so prevalent in west- Middle Way appears to have encountered and
at through our mental efforts.9 ern culture. This realism is pervasive in our continues to encounter challenges very simi-
We see similar evidence that truth is the culture and there is little or no exposure to lar to those faced by radical constructivism.
be all and end all in determining value in sci- an alternative experienced by most of soci- What light might this shed on the challenges
entific explanation among critics of radical ety. It goes unexamined by most members of mounted against radical constructivism?
constructivism in the writing of Matthews the culture. The realist origins of the oft- The central idea in the Middle Way when
(1998, p. 5): described difficulties are even more plausi- first translated into English was referred to as
“There is a not-too-subtle difference ble when one takes a critical look at many “emptiness.” This word is still used in the lit-
between the constructivist formulation such passages on difficulties with radical erature. What it refers to is the notion that
‘making sense,’ and the realist formula- constructivism. Owen clearly expresses dis- when we attempt to go beyond the conven-
tion ‘finding out.’ The former has no epis- belief in the words of the article on which he tional existence of anything, we find no ulti-
temological or referential bite; the latter is commenting. In paragraph 52 of von Gla- mate essence. The consequence is that the
has both. Things can make perfect sense sersfeld’s article (1999a) we find the follow- conventional existence of something has a
without being true; and making still more ing: beginning, middle and end. For Buddhists
sense does not imply any increase in truth “The value of the constructivist model – this is characteristic of the world we know.
content.” and I emphasize once more that radical This beginning, middle, and end, sometimes
… and from Kragh (1998, p. 129): constructivism makes no ontological put as arising, existing, ceasing, applies also
“The epistemology characteristic of con- claims and is intended as no more, but to what we think things are – all things:
structivists is either relativistic or agnostic, also no less, than a useful model of objects, ideas, etc. Thus conventional exist-
in the sense that they do not admit any dis- knowledge and the activity of knowing – ence is an expression of emptiness. Von Gla-
tinction between true and false accounts of will have to be determined by its applica- sersfeld (1999b, [6]) appears to have
nature…, Denying the existence of an tion to basic problems we run into in the intended something similar when he wrote:
objective nature, or declaring it without construction of our experiential worlds.” “Considered as a proposed way of think-
interest, scientists’ accounts are all there is, It appears then that one major challenge, ing and not as a description of the way
and it is with these accounts the construc- possibly the major challenge, in understand- things are, the question to ask about the
tivist sociologist is solely concerned. How, ing radical constructivism is the pervasive, constructivist model is simply: does it give
then, do scientists manage to produce implicit grounding we all have in realism a viable account of the knowledge I rely on
their results and build up a corpus of con- from our culture and our own nature. Until in my actual living. I obviously believe it
sensual knowledge about what they call one gets past this hurdle, one cannot be does – but this in no way denies the possi-
nature?” described as understanding radical construc- bility that tomorrow or the next day a
In these two passages there seems to be tivism. Throughout the discussions, argu- more elegant or effective model might be
the implicit expectation that the sense made ments and debates concerning radical con- constructed.”
by mere students is extremely unlikely to structivism, reference to Truth maintains its Without ultimate essence there is no ver-
resemble what scientists decided before. presence as revealed by the words of very idical picture of essential or ultimate reality.
This suggests a belief about human nature, intelligent, sincere detractors. This is evi- Any current viable account of experience that
e.g., that most people are not capable of dence of the difficulty of letting go of realist exists now, arose and we can expect it to be
making the same sense of phenomena that criteria, which are not part of radical con- discarded at some point in the future for
scientists have in the past. Apparently, in structivism. Such criteria are unnecessary and another viable account that we consider
this view, scientists are the few special peo- counter productive in radical constructivism. more useful at that point.

52 Constructivist Foundations
educational radical constructivism

A text on the Middle Way was written by tary. Repeatedly he shows how positions cized in a way that might push me to think
the Buddhist scholar, Nagarjuna, in the sec- involving either extreme of essentialism, lead and above all to express my thoughts more
ond century C. E. This text is still studied by to contradiction. The only way to avoid these clearly.”
Buddhist scholars today. In it Nagarjuna contradictions is to avoid the extremes of Certainly, given the number of recurrences
explains and defends the Middle Way in verse essentialism. Avoiding the contradictions of application of realist criteria to radical con-
form. The book from which the opening enables one to be consistent with the funda- structivism and the number of responses to
translation was taken includes a very interest- mental Buddhist tenets.14 This middle path these misapplications in different words and
ing and useful commentary. What is consid- then holds emptiness, as well as all of the phe- different contexts, it appears that there is no
ered to describe the Middle Way in a nutshell nomenal world, as empty. magic bullet, no set of words that can be used
is Chapter 24, verse 18 (Garfield 1995): Every challenge to the Middle Way is effec- to avoid initial misunderstanding of what is
“Whatever is dependently co-arisen tively countered by Nagarjuna in essentially intended by radical constructivism.16 The
That is explained to be emptiness. this same way. The many examples of Nagar- results of von Glasersfeld’s eloquence over
That, being a dependent designation, juna’s counters to the challenges suggest that many years now support this contention. The
Is itself the middle way.” the chief challenge to understanding the Mid- process of constructing a new understanding
It appears that what is meant here is that dle Way has its origins in not being able to step is a process, not something that can be handed
the impermanence of everything we know outside of essentialism, i.e., realism. Hence, out to anyone who will read or listen. Simi-
conventionally means that everything we even in cultures considered to be majority larly, the practitioners of the Buddhist
know conventionally lacks ultimate essence; Buddhist, the notion of the Middle Way was Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy
it is empty. Any essence we might perceive is misunderstood, apparently in a way very sim- point out that a crucial feature is meditative
our own imputation, human construction. ilar to the misunderstanding of radical con- praxis that enables the experience of the emp-
In addition the designation “empty” is itself structivism. tiness of all phenomena. This significance of
empty; hence, emptiness is empty of ultimate This may help us to understand better our process in knowing, both on the part of radi-
essence, also. This notion that emptiness own situation in which so many seem to mis- cal constructivism and of the Buddhist Mid-
itself is empty seems to be very similar to a understand radical constructivism. Even in a dle Way, is in stark contrast with the realism
claim repeated by radical constructivists setting in which a similar philosophical posi- that dominates Western philosophy and sci-
(Glasersfeld 1999a, [4]): tion is officially sanctioned, there is resistance ence with the focus on final product.
“I would be contradicting one of the basic of the same sort. Apparently the situation is
principles of my own theory if I were to not simply a matter of our realist culture but
claim that the constructivist approach of something deeper in the human experience Disequilibration as
provides a true description of an objective and functioning.15
state of affairs.”
central to change in
Challenges to the Middle Way come from understanding
essentialism in its various forms. Essentialism What can we do?
entails the notion that the ultimate essence of The problem of realists understanding radi-
something exists and can be known. A conse- Considering possible responses to the chal- cal constructivism is analogous to that in sci-
quence of this ultimate essence of something lenge of understanding radical constructiv- ence education (Dykstra 2005). Those teach-
is permanence, hence it does not arise nor ism, we need to keep in mind important fea- ing science usually have significantly
does it cease and it can have no cause either to tures of radical constructivism: different understandings of the phenomena
arise or to cease. There are two extremes in 1. Meaning exists only in the mind, hence it than their students. This has been known for
essentialism. In the case of the reification of cannot be transmitted (Glasersfeld, in some time and is well documented (Duit
the phenomenal world then emptiness press) 2006). Much effort has been expended by
(dependence) cannot exist, but ultimate 2. The only person who can make new many very diligent, sincere, intelligent
essence does. In the case of the reification of understanding for a person is that person. instructors, yet the outcome is most students
emptiness, nihilism, the phenomenal world 3. In the case of communication, meaning leave with the same understanding of the
cannot exist, hence the ultimate essence of the can be negotiated, but at best we can only phenomena they came with, new terms not-
phenomenal world is permanent non-exist- take this negotiated meaning as shared. withstanding. Meaning was not transmitted
ence. These two extremes in essentialism 4. Meaning or understanding is formulated to the students (Duit 2006). Of course, this
seem to be realism and solipsism, respectively. to fit experience, and so revised when negative result has to be explained. The realist
Either physical reality exists or it does not. If needed. adopts the elitist doctrine that only a few spe-
it exists, then we can work on knowing it bet- The consequence of these features of radi- cial students can properly receive what has
ter and better. The only other option in essen- cal constructivism is that we should strive to been transmitted. radical constructivism
tialism is non-existence. emulate von Glasersfeld (1999b, [1]) – as he offers an alternative.
The nature of the responses Nagarjuna explained: If meaning cannot be transmitted, then is
makes to challenges to the Middle Way “I entered the fray neither to preach nor to instruction for all a hopeless cause? It appears
become evident when one reads the commen- convince, but in the hope of being criti- that attempts to transmit meaning in science

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 53

educational radical constructivism

instruction generally fail. To attempt to trans- tion is initiated and existing explanation is can be the result of this approach to instruc-
mit something entails something that can be modified and tested until the new or modified tion. On established diagnostics of students’
transmitted. In realism this meaning, often explanation fits these new experiences. An conceptions, course averages for non-science
called knowledge, is assumed to have this accommodation is developed. The disequili- majors routinely change by four or five times
property. That the attempt to transmit “sci- bration can be minor or monumental. Either the amount the class averages change for sci-
ence knowledge” is such a spectacular failure way the new explanation fits experience better ence and engineering majors that experience
in science education suggests a substantial than the previously existing explanatory con- conventional instruction on the same topics.
failure of the realist program to fit experience. ceptions. The large change in understanding is not just
An alternative exists to this dismal pros- If one wishes to engage someone in devel- achieved by a few special students, but essen-
pect. The Swiss Genetic Epistemologist, Jean oping new understanding, disequilibration is tially by all who are willing to participate in
Piaget, and his colleagues studied the think- key. This is central for any teacher who wishes the process.17 The instruction described is
ing of children and students for more than 60 students to leave the instructional setting with pursued with the goal of engaging students in
years. This work focused not on what happens new understanding. The teacher needs to examining and testing their own sense of the
in school, but on what appears to be happen- understand the students’ thinking about a phenomena. This is in contrast to typical
ing in the minds of young human beings. phenomenon. With this understanding in instruction in which the activity has the
Piaget and his co-workers developed an mind, the teacher needs to search for exam- exclusive goal of transmitting the knowledge
explanatory model for the developmental ples of experience with the phenomenon that to the students by telling and showing them.
processes they observed in many students do not fit the students’ thinking. Having The structure of the canonical knowledge
(Piaget 1985). Human beings establish and picked an example, to maximize the chances does not drive this instruction. Instead, the
maintain equilibrium between their concep- that students disequilibrate, the teacher will students’ understanding and the experiences
tions of their world and their experiences in engage the students in making and explaining it can be applied to drive the instruction. It is
their world. When they perceive disequilibra- predictions about the example. This engages not a focus on the phenomena, nor is it an
tion, they move to re-establish equilibrium. commitment to the explanation by the stu-
This can happen in either of two ways. The dents and makes explicit features of their
offending experience can be ignored or explanatory conceptions. The prediction sets
avoided, swept under the carpet, so to speak. up a test of their explanations. If the teacher Dewey I. Dykstra, Jr., currently a Professor
On the other hand, conceptions of the world has developed a sufficient understanding of of Physics at Boise State University in Boise,
can be changed such that the offending expe- the students’ understandings, then when they ID, USA, began his interest in science by
rience no longer offends. experience the example experience, they will reading science fiction in grade 3. Active in
In this model, human beings are con- not be able to assimilate it. Disequilibration is science fairs through the middle and high
stantly experiencing their world. There is a the result. If the teacher has not developed a school grades in Maryland, at Case Institute
constant, not always conscious, checking of sufficient understanding of the students’ of Technology in Cleveland, OH he earned
these experiences against expectations based understandings, then they will be able to a B. S. in Physics in 1969. For three years he
on existing explanatory schemes. As long as assimilate the new experience. Disequilibra- taught Physics and Physical Science at East
experiences are consistent with existing tion does not occur and no change in existing Technical High School in Cleveland, OH and
explanatory conceptions, these experiences explanations will be necessary. Even though the next year 9th grade Physical Science and
reinforce those conceptions. It should be the students do not change their understand- senior Physics at Middletown High School in
noted that a significant part of this process is ings, the event provides evidence for the Middletown, MD. While earning a Ph. D. in
the selective ignoring of certain differences teacher to develop a better understanding of condensed matter Physics at The University
that in the applicable conception are deemed the students’ understandings. of Texas at Austin, he stumbled upon a
unimportant. This processing of experience If, in the classroom, it is safe for their pre- description of the work of Jean Piaget and
that matches or fits existing explanatory con- dictions to be found not fitting their explana- its applications to thinking about physics
ceptions is called by Piaget “assimilation.” tions, then it is safe to speculate about and test learning. On the Physics faculty at Okla-
Under these conditions, existing explanations alternative explanations, on the evidence of homa State University and at Boise State
account for experience, hence there is neither the new experience. These alternative expla- University, Dykstra’s work has focused on
need nor motivation to revise or devise new nations can be tested. This process of elicita- understanding the nature of understanding
explanatory conceptions. There is equilib- tion of explanatory conceptions, comparing physical phenomena and how, why, and
rium between experience and existing expla- these conceptions with experience, and under what circumstances this understand-
nation. resolving discrepancies can be cycled over ing appears to change. Having heard of con-
When experience is encountered that is additional experiences that do not fit explana- structivism already from others, he was not
perceived not to fit existing explanation and tion at each cycle. The result is always explan- exposed to the writing of Ernst von Glasers-
this mismatch cannot be ignored, a state of atory conceptions that fit more experience feld until 1989. Since then, Ernst has been a
disequilibration between explanation and and usually fit more closely. valued mentor. Dykstra sometimes finds
experience is experienced. Once avoidance is Dykstra (2005) shares data in evidence time to play bagpipes.
not an option, then a process of self-regula- that change in understanding the phenomena

54 Constructivist Foundations
educational radical constructivism

attempt to guess what scientists figured out in and gestures. Just as experience with a physi- us. We cannot afford to let the risk of being
the past. It is a focus by the students on their cal phenomenon neither conveys nor proves written off deter us from our efforts to induce
own understanding and testing it carefully the truth of an explanation, our words and disequilibration. Without disequilibration,
against experience with the phenomena. In gestures do not convey or prove meaning to no change in understanding happens.
other words, it is the process that makes the someone else. In the case of radical construc- It should be clear that this process requires
changes in understanding possible. tivism the process is more complicated and patience. We see this in Ernst von Glasersfeld’s
requires more time than the phenomena of approach. For many his calm and patient
introductory physics.18 demeanor, coupled with his willingness to
Disequilibration: It is necessary in our interactions with interact, have provided necessary ingredients
realists that we recognize they do not realize to enable us to construct our understandings
Key to breaking the we are working with a profoundly different set of radical constructivism. We can only hope
bonds of realism of initial assumptions. Society is set up by to emulate him in our own efforts to help oth-
realists to be compatible with their view. They ers understand.
If this approach to education can shed any will work very hard at interpreting what we Thank you Ernst for engaging with us in
light on engaging people in constructing an say in their terms. They cannot “hear” what constructing our own new understandings,
understanding of radical constructivism, it we are saying in our own terms, because they for being our mentor.
seems to be in inducing disequilibration. One have yet to construct the requisite ideas.
cannot disequilibrate someone else, but one Before they begin to develop another way of
can create settings in which people are more thinking, they have to disequilibrate. We have Acknowledgements
likely to disequilibrate themselves. The effort to calculate to say and do things, to bring their
to accomplish this induction of disequilibra- attention to things that do not fit their realist In addition to the mentorship of Ernst von
tion must be understood as a process. We do explanations of their world, i.e., things that do Glasersfeld, I am indebted to Geshe Lhakdor
not have the luxury of having an impartial not make sense to them. We run the risk of and Allan Wallace for the opportunity to
third entity, such as some physical phenome- their concluding we are deluded or misled. interact with them about Buddhist philoso-
non to check against. Consequently, all we This is the equivalent of sweeping the experi- phy. A very large number of students have
have to share is our words and the gestures we ence, and us, under the carpet. On the other helped immeasurably by being willing to
make. The only experience another has to hand, there will be some who draw near to the share their understandings with me. Contri-
work with to test their explanation of what we discrepancy they perceive and begin to butions have also been made by two anony-
are talking about is experience with our words develop new conceptions in interactions with mous reviewers of this manuscript.

Notes to experience. “Being explained” entails fit from the logical operations used to derive
between explanation and that which is to conclusions from the assumptions and de-
1. For the reader who is not familiar with be explained. Since the attempt is to ex- scriptions of experience. The logical oper-
radical constructivism there are two plain experience, it is not an assumption ations are in the “if…, then…” and the
sources that serve as good starting points that initial assumptions in a paradigm “because…” parts of explanation.
for making sense of radical constructiv- must fit experience. It is a consequence of 7. This passage is reproduced exactly as it ap-
ism. The shorter of these two is the article the belief that experience can be explained. pears on-line. The only thing changed is
Knowing without metaphysics (Glasersfeld Fitting experience is the point of the pro- the font and font size.
1999a). The article is accessible on-line. A cess. An explanation that does not fit 8. It should be noted that in the case of this
more extensive description is in the book would neither be viable nor an explana- particular author, reading the note in its
Radical constructivism: A way of knowing tion. This is not uniquely Piagetian. It is entirety reveals the author is working on
and learning (Glasersfeld 1995). fundamental to the process of any attempt making sense of radical constructivism.
2. A few examples: Bickhard (1995); Phillips to explain a specified set of experiences This is relatively rare. Most negative pub-
(2000); Suchting (1992). from any paradigm. It is certainly the basis lications about radical constructivism are
3. For example: Matthews (2000); Kragh of science. attempts to disprove it, not understand it.
(1998); Nola (1998). 5. It is important to keep in mind the differ- 9. Alan Wallace (2006, personal communi-
4. Since the objects of interest here are para- ence between understanding a view and cation) suggests: “The fundamental ques-
digms concerning the explanation of ex- accepting that view. tion as I see it is: are you seeking to
perience, any paradigm whose initial 6. By “logic” and “logical operations” I mean understand reality as it exists indepen-
assumptions do not fit experience will to distinguish initial assumptions, de- dently of perceptual experience and
have a hard time surviving the need for fit scriptions of experience and conclusions thought? Or are you seeking to understand

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 55

educational radical constructivism

the world of experience (Lebenswelt), 12.It is the case that Buddhism practices sim- this list of the eightfold path has been ad-
which does not exist independently of per- ilar ideals to those of radical constructiv- justed to conform to the standard in Tibet-
cepts and concepts? Philosophical realists ism. In particular both are based on the an Buddhism.
are concerned with the former, whereas extent to which they fit experience. This is 15.One wonders with access to cinema pre-
Buddhists (especially Madhyamikas one of many differences in Buddhism mises, such as that in The Matrix, and ac-
[Middle Way adherents]) are concerned from religions we in the west are generally cess to virtual reality, if there is the slow
with the latter.” In radical constructivism familiar with. The consequence is that evolution of culture beyond realism. Sad-
the position is that our experiential reality Buddhist philosophy evolves as does our ly, many young people seem more inter-
is all we can access. We have no way to ac- understanding in radical constructivism. ested in material gain. In this context it
cess something that might be independent 13.This explanation of the relationship be- appears The Matrix is still science fiction,
of perceptual experience and thought. tween these philosophical schools was giv- with the emphasis on fiction.
This suggests a certain similarity between en in verbal interaction by Geshe Lhakdor, 16.The typical conclusion first jumped to
the positions of Buddhism and radical Director of the Library of Tibetan Works about radical constructivism while still
constructivism in contrast to realism. and Archives, Dharamsalla, India, Decem- rooted in realist foundations is that radical
10.One should note that Riegler (2001) shows ber, 2005. constructivism is nothing more than the
how one can understand science from a 14. The Four Noble Truths in Buddhism and absurd assertion of solipsism.
radical constructivist point of view. Of their implications serve as the foundation 17.The elitist notion implied in the realist
course, the drive to find truth is not part of on which Buddhism and its philosophy criticism by their assumption that mere
this way of understanding science. are built. They are: (1) All life in cyclic ex- students making sense about phenomena
11.Others associated with radical construc- istence is suffering. (2) There is a cause of cannot lead to what scientists have decided
tivism have explored connections between this suffering, namely, craving caused by is without merit in the light of this data.
Buddhist thought and radical constructiv- ignorance. (3) There is a release from suf- 18.The shift from the goal of students “get-
ism. The interested reader should consult fering. (4) The path to that release is the ting” the distilled wisdom transmitted to
Varela, Thompson & Rosch (1991). In the eightfold Buddhist path of Right View, engaging students in making sense of their
present piece the point is not primarily the Right Understanding, Right Speech, Right experiences seems similar to Piet Hut’s
similarities between the two philosophies, Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, (2003) reference to “goal-as-path” forms
but that both have faced analogous on- Right Mindfulness and Right Concentra- of Buddhism in contrast to what might be
slaughts from defenders of realism. tion (Garfield 1995, p. 294). The order in goal-as-result forms.

References Mulamadhyamakakarika. Oxford Univer- on 5 March

sity Press: New York. 2007.
Bickhard, M. H. (1995) World mirroring ver- Glasersfeld, E. von (1995) Radical construc- Hut, P. (2003) Conclusion: Life as a labora-
sus world making: There’s gotta be a better tivism: A way of knowing and learning. tory. In: Wallace, B. A. (ed.) Buddhism an
way. In: Steffe, L. P. & Gale, J. (eds) Con- Falmer Press: London. science. Columbia University Press: New
structivism in education. Lawrence Glasersfeld, E. von (1999a) Knowing without York, pp. 399–416.
Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale NJ, pp. 229– metaphysics: Aspects of the radical con- Jammer, M. (1957) Concepts of force. Har-
267. structivist position. Karl Jaspers Forum vard University Press: Cambridge MA.
de la Torre, A. C. & Zamorano, R. (2001) Target Article 17. Retrieved from http:// Republished in 1999 by Dover Publica-
Answer to question #31. Does any piece of on 11 Sep- tions: Mineola NY,
mathematics exist for which there is no tember 2006. Originally published in 1991 Kragh, H. (1998) Social constructivism, the
application whatsoever in physics? Ameri- in: Steier, F. (ed.) Research and reflexivity gospel of science, and the teaching of phys-
can Journal of Physics 69(2): 103. (Inquiries into Social Construction). Sage ics. In: Matthews, M. R. (ed) Constructiv-
Duit, R. (2006) Students’ and teachers’ con- Publications: London, pp. 12–29. ism in science education. Kluwer
ceptions in science: A bibliography. Glasersfeld, E. von (1999b) Construction in Academic Publishers: Norwell MA, pp.
Retrieved from http://www.ipn.uni- religion and art. Response 5 to commen- 125–138. on 29 Jan- tary 5 by G. Morgenstern to Karl Jaspers Matthews, M. R. (1998) Introductory com-
uary 2007. Forum Target Article 17. Retrieved from ments on philosophy and constructivism
Dykstra, D. I. Jr. (2005) Against realist on 12 in science education. In: Matthews, M. R.
instruction: Superficial success masking September 2006. (ed) Constructivism in science education.
catastrophic failure and an alternative. Glasersfeld, E. von (in press) The constructiv- Kluwer Academic Publishers: Norwell
Constructivist Foundations 1(1): 40–60. ist view of communication. Presented at MA, pp. 1–10.
Garfield, J. L. (1995) The Fundamental Wis- the 2003 Memorial Meeting for Heinz von Matthews, M. R. (2000) Appraising construc-
dom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Foerster, Vienna. Retrieved from http:// tivism in science and mathematics educa-

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tion. In: Phillips, D. C. (ed.) Construc- structivism in education: Opinions and

tivism in education: Opinions and second opinions on controversial issues.
second opinions on controversial National Society for the Study of Educa-
issues. National Society for the Study tion: Chicago, pp. 1–16. (See also the Edi-
of Education: Chicago, pp. 161–192. tor’s Introduction to each section of the
Nola, R. (1998) Constructivism in science book).
and in science education: A philosoph- Piaget, J. (1985) The equilibration of cogni-
ical critique. In: Matthews, M. R. tive structures: The central problem of
(ed.) Constructivism in science intellectual development. Chicago: Uni-
education: A philosophical exam- versity of Chicago Press.
ination. Kluwer Academic Pub- Riegler, A. (2001) Towards a radical construc-
lishers: Norwell MA, pp. 31–60. tivist understanding of science. Founda-
Owen, R. (1999) Difficulties with con- tions of Science 6 (1–3): 1–30.
structivism. Commentary 24 to Karl Suchting, W. A. (1992) Constructivism de-
Jaspers Forum Target Article 17. constructed. Science and Education 1(3):
Retrieved from 223–254.
C24OW.htm on 11 September 2006. Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch, E. (1991)
Phillips, D. C. (2000) An The embodied mind: Cognitive science
opinionated and human experience. MIT Press: Cam-
account of the bridge MA.
landscape. In: Phil- Received: 15 September 2006
lips, D. C. (ed.) Con- Accepted: 13 February 2007

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 57

philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism & biology of cognition

Distinguishing Ernst von Glasersfeld’s

“Radical Constructivism” from
Humberto Maturana’s “Radical Realism”
Vincent Kenny A Accademia Costruttivista di Terapia Sistemica (Italy) <>

Empiricus, of Montaigne, Berkeley, and

Purpose: Ernst von Glasersfeld has dedicated a lot of effort to trying to define just where Vico … the company of all the coura-
his views and those of his friend Humberto Maturana part company, epistemologically geous sceptics who … have maintained
speaking (Glasersfeld 1991, 2001).As a contribution to unravelling this puzzle I propose in that it is impossible to compare our
this article to delineate just where they seem to differ most and why these differences arise. image of reality with a reality outside. It
Approach: Part of my contribution is to propose drawing a distinction between von Gla- is impossible, because in order to check
sersfeld’s Radical Constructivism as the last viable outpost of constructivism before enter- whether our representation is a ‘true’ pic-
ing into the domain of solipsism, in contrast to Maturana’s position which is saved from ture of reality we should have to have
being located within the solipsistic domain by virtue of his ideas on “structure determined access not only to our representation but
systems” and his theory of how language arises in human experience. also to that outside reality before we get to
Findings:Von Glasersfeld’s puzzle arises due to what Kant called “transcendental illusion,” know it. And because the only way in
that is, the error of trying to encompass two mutually untranslatable phenomenal domains which we are supposed to get at reality is
within the same language framework. Conclusions: After an examination of some of the precisely the way we would like to check
crucial differences between von Glasersfeld and Maturana I typify Maturana’s positioning and verify, there is no possible escape
as that of “radical realism” in contrast to von Glasersfeld’s “radical constructivism.” from the dilemma.” (Glasersfeld 1987,
Key words: Epistemology, transcendental illusion, radical realism, map–territory. pp. 137–138).
So here is a very clear condemnation of
The leaking describe an independent reality. That is “epistemological cheating” – the impossible
why I prefer to call it an approach to or a feat of trying to peep around our perceptual
constructivist boat theory of knowing. Though I have used “goggles” to see if our “picture” is approxi-
adrift in an ocean of them in the past, I now try to avoid the mating to the “real reality” or not. Over the
terms ‘epistemology’ or ‘theory of knowl- past 20 years Ernst von Glasersfeld has put a
realism edge’ for constructivism, because they lot of effort into understanding just where
tend to imply the traditional scenario his work and the work of Humberto Mat-
It is not my intention to compare their entire according to which novice subjects are urana differ, especially in the fundamental
works in this short paper. It would be like born into a ready-made world, which matters of epistemology. Apart from his
comparing apples and pears – they have pro- they must try to discover and ‘represent’ grave reservations about key concepts of
duced very different models and for very dif- to themselves. From the constructivist Maturana’s work such as the “observer” (and
ferent purposes. While Ernst von Glasersfeld point of view, the subject cannot tran- how he comes about), “consciousness,”
has always limited himself to a sharp focus on scend the limits of individual experience.” “awareness,” and “language” (its genesis, and
epistemology, Humberto Maturana has (Glasersfeld 1995, pp. 1–2) that it precedes cognition, etc.), Ernst von
developed several different models relating to In his early studies Ernst von Glasersfeld Glasersfeld shares the perplexity of other
the different areas of cellular biology, experi- noted a problem in Wittgenstein’s (1933) authors regarding the ways in which Mat-
mental epistemology, neurophysiology, lan- assertions about comparing our picture of urana can be seen to be “smuggling realism”
guage, visual perception, and the “definition reality with the reality in question in order to back into his opus in one form or another
of the living,” among others. Indeed, in recent determine whether or not our own picture (Mingers 1995, Johnson 1991, Held & Pols
years Ernst von Glasersfeld (1995) has written was true or false. Ernst von Glasersfeld 1987). In Maturana’s writings there are many
that he now tries to avoid even using the term (1987) comments: passages where one gets the impression that
“epistemology” and writes about human “How could one possibly carry out that he edges over into the terrain of “realism” in
“knowing.” comparison? With that question, his discussions and phraseologies. In
“…(this book) is an attempt to explain a although I did not know it at the time, I attempting to understand this Ernst von Gla-
way of thinking and makes no claim to found myself in the company of Sextus sersfeld (1991) tries to explain that Maturana

58 Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism & biology of cognition

“… is obliged to use a language in his wander off in different directions, being to fit into the world as he or she experi-
expositions that has been shaped and pol- mindful that while Maturana has tried consis- ences it.” (Glasersfeld 1995, p. 114)
ished by more than two thousand years of tently to build up a major overarching philo- In this relationship of knowledge to “real-
realism – naïve or metaphysical – a lan- sophical model, von Glasersfeld has strictly ity” we see that it is a matter not of searching
guage that forces him to use the word limited himself to the epistemological task of for an iconic representation of reality but
‘to be’ which, in all its grammatical forms, delineating what human knowing can be and rather the search for ways of “fitting” the con-
implies the assumption on an ontic real- cannot be. straints that the environment provides. The
ity.” (Glasersfeld 1991, p. 66) real world is “contacted” by the system only
However, I believe that there is more where his modes of fitting the constraints
involved here than the constraints of the “lan- Structure-determinism break down and do not manage to allow him
guage of realism,” because Maturana (1986) to circumnavigate the encountered impedi-
has frequently not helped matters by inserting
and the dilemma of ments. It is also clear from his use of the met-
passages in his writings which are epistemo- “choice” aphor of lock/key that one may be outfitted
logically ambiguous. For example, he has with a range of alternative keys one of which
claimed that it is an “epistemological neces- A good starting point for this task is the issue may work better than others to open the lock.
sity” to expect that there is a “substratum” as of how “free” or “constrained” we are in our This is an idea common to other constructiv-
the ultimate medium in which everything interactions with our world and others. Both ists, notably among them George Kelly
takes place. Such remarks can lead one to Ernst von Glasersfeld and Humberto Mat- (1955), whose constructivist theory applied
question whether or not he is smuggling urana can be read as dealing with how much to clinical psychology and psychotherapy was
“realism” back into his model. freedom to manoeuvre we have in coping premised on the notion of “constructive alter-
In this brief article I will try to throw a little with life’s events. Ernst von Glasersfeld nativism.” Kelly believed that in order to con-
light on Ernst von Glasersfeld’s puzzle about describes how we must “fit” with the con- tinue to learn and to positively elaborate the
where he and Maturana part epistemological straints of the environment, while Humberto personal construct system, the person must
company. I will try to trace several important Maturana’s notion of structure determinism choose those alternatives which will lead to
differences in their theories, relating my dis- can be read as implying that the system has no the extension and/or definition of the con-
cussion to how they variously define the way “real choice” when it comes to the moment of struction system. Survival simply means con-
the person experiences their living. I will try taking action. Let us look a little more closely structing any alternative means whatever
to point out some forks in the road where they at these two positions. which manage to get by the constraints. In any
The relation of fitting that von Glasersfeld given environment there may be an infinite
(1984) has in mind is conveyed in his meta- variety of viable alternative solutions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR phor of a key fitting a lock: “There are other consequences of the con-
Vincent Kenny about himself:“I was born in “A key fits if it opens the lock. The fit structivist approach to knowing that are
Ireland and studied for degrees in philoso- describes a capacity of the key, not of the sometimes met with indignation. If viabil-
phy and psychology at Trinity College Dub- lock. Thanks to professional burglars we ity depends on the goals one has chosen –
lin in the 1960s. I graduated from there at know only too well that there are many goals that necessarily lie within one’s
a time when these subjects were still called keys that are shaped quite differently from world of experience – and on the particu-
“Mental and Moral Science” and have spent our own but which nevertheless unlock lar methods adopted to attain them, it is
my subsequent years wondering which was our doors. …. From the radical construc- clear that there will always be more than
which. Since the 1970s I have worked tivist point of view, all of us – scientists, one way. When a goal has been attained,
applying constructivist ideas in the very dif- philosophers, laymen, school children, this success must, therefore, never be
ferent fields of psychotherapy, consulting to animals, and indeed , any kind of living interpreted as having discovered the way.
organisations, and to tennis psychology – organism – face our environment as a bur- This goes against the notion that repeated
working with professionals in the ATP and glar faces a lock that he has to unlock in success in dealing with a problem proves
WTA tours. I live in Rome, where I also order to get at the loot.” (Glasersfeld 1984, that one has discovered the workings of an
work much of the time. My main current p. 21). objective world. Solutions, from the con-
position is as director of the “Accademia To continue his elaboration, von Glasersfeld structivist perspective, are always relative –
Costruttivista di Terapia Sistemica” in (1995) says that our knowledge does not con- and this, in turn, makes clear that problems
Rome, which is a new center for training in stitute a picture of the world. are not entities that lie about in the uni-
radical constructivist psychotherapy “It does not represent the world at all – it verse, independent of any experiencer.
approaches. I have a long-term writing comprises action schemes, concepts, and Instead, problems arise when obstacles
project with Ernst von Glasersfeld – a book thoughts, and it distinguishes the ones block the way to a subject’s goal.” (Glasers-
on the application of radical constructivism that are considered advantageous from feld 1988, p. 88)
to the area of psychotherapy – which I those that are not. In other words, it per- While Ernst von Glasersfeld, on the one
seem reluctant to finish.” tains to the ways and means the cognizing hand, seems to share with George Kelly the
subject has conceptually evolved in order outlook of “constructive alternativism,” on

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 59

philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism & biology of cognition

the other hand, as I have previously observed structivist” then he (Maturana) was a what can be known rationally; he does not
(Kenny 1989), Maturana would seem to pre- “radical radical constructivist,” because at deny that mystics and artists may access some
empt out any alternative structural compen- the moment of perceiving there is no alterna- “ulterior reality” in their own ways but only
sations at the moment of interacting with the tive other than what our structure-deter- that such access must not be confused with a
perturbation at hand: mined system dictates that we must do in rational theory of knowing.
“Maturana is not a constructive alterna- order to compensate effectively to the current Among his many refutations of being a
tivist because at the moment of choosing perturbation solipsist, Maturana refers to his theory of
there are no other alternatives possible. On this analysis, the fact of having “no “languaging” which states that language
The ‘choice’ made was determined by the choice” is a crucial parting of the ways comes about through the coordinations of
system’s coherence. It had to be made. between Ernst von Glasersfeld and Hum- the coordinations of actions among people in
Kelly himself would also appear not to be berto Maturana. Humberto Maturana’s posi- a co-ontogenic structural drift. The fact that
an alternativist with his emphasis on tion is that our system specifies our medium later on we come to use this language to
‘choice’ as a form of self-involvement and in such a way that it is co-existent, co-exten- invent notions such as “solipsism” saying that
self-ordering, rather than saying much sive, conterminous with our own embodied the mind alone creates the world, is a notion
about the ‘objects chosen’.” (Kenny 1989, existence. simply refuted by the fact that his (Mat-
p. 120). So in this relationship of knowledge to urana’s) view of language development is
So while for von Glasersfeld the person reality, for von Glasersfeld the notion of premised on the precedent existence of peo-
may hold several alternative “keys,” for Mat- “truth” is replaced by that of “viability” and ple who are coordinating their activities
urana the person is the key, and the person’s “fit.” For Maturana it is not so much an issue together – clearly not a solipsistic context!
structures have implied the character of the of “fitting” or “viability” as it is an issue of Maturana and Varela positioned this prob-
“lock” – or brought it forth – as part of their structural coherences of the system in its lem as part of an epistemological Odyssey,
cognitive domain in such a way that there medium. Maturana tries to elaborate this by “sailing between the Scylla monster of repre-
exists an effective structural intersection describing the ways in which the observer sentationism and the Charybdis whirlpool of
between the “person-as-key” and the “lock.” brings forth his own reality, and in doing so solipsism” (Maturana & Varela 1987, p. 134).
The structural autonomy of the system is generates a pattern of structural synchrony or As part of his strategy to deal with the
paramount for Maturana. This means that structural coherences. “outside world” and not be trapped in accu-
the system can only do what it does at any sations of solipsism, von Glasersfeld pro-
particular moment of doing. There are no poses the use of the notion of the “black box.”
other choices in the system. A system is always The inside–outside This also helps in the task of avoiding the
in its proper place and cannot be mistaken. confusions of epistemological cheating by
For Maturana, at the moment of taking
distinction pretending that we can compare our “pic-
action the system has no other choice than In their rejection of “realism” both authors ture” of the world to the “actual reality.” He
what it does. The system does what its struc- have been obliged to demonstrate how they comments:
ture is set up to do. Unlike von Glasersfeld’s avoid the epistemological quagmire of solip- “If it is the experiencer’s intelligence or
images of “bumping into” the constraining sism. Here there is another difference that cognitive activity that, by organizing
features of the environment, for Maturana it opens up in their various approaches, with itself, organizes his experience into a via-
is as if the system/medium structural coher- von Glasersfeld taking the road of denying ble representation of a world, then one
ences were “full up-” and every-“thing” was that he is saying that “nothing exists outside can consider that representation a model,
in its reciprocally complementary position- of people’s heads,” and repeating that he is not and the ‘outside reality’ it claims to repre-
ing – there being little or no space for new or saying that reality does not exist. As a wry sent, a black box.” (Glasersfeld 1987,
extra elements to easily enter into the picture. aside he says that: “In practice, solipsism is p. 156)
In other words, there are no spare compo- refuted daily by the experience that the world This helps emphasise that for von Glasers-
nents “hanging around” in the environment is hardly ever what we would like it to be” feld there is a clear separation of what is
waiting for us to bump into them. (Glasersfeld 1995, p. 113). For Maturana’s “inside” the person and what is “outside” as
From this point of view, to speak of having part, his refutation of solipsism takes off the “environment” or “reality.” It means that
a range of “choices” is misleading. Since these along the road of languaging (coordinations everything that is outwith oneself – the envi-
implicative construct pathways are already of coordinations of actions) – which seems in ronment, other people, children, dogs, etc. –
laid down within the ongoing system one my view to lead him to the area of “structural are all black boxes from the observer’s point
could argue that the “choices” are illusory realism.” of view. It means we can never “really know”
since the structures of the system already Ernst von Glasersfeld reminds us that what others are thinking or what they “really
contain the preferential direction of move- constructivists must be unwavering agnos- mean.” It means that we can never know that
ment and action. tics as regards “existence” because whatever what another person is feeling is “really like”
Even though he has usually avoided label- may lie beyond our experience is inaccessible what I am feeling. We can never find out what
ling his approach, Maturana once said jok- to our reasoning. He has many times the other is “really like” because all we have to
ingly to me that if Ernst was a “radical con- attempted to clarify that his concern is with go on are our interpretations of what our

60 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism & biology of cognition

senses tell us about our experience of them. evolution, and where the “inside–outside” Radically different
The most we can do is to construct models of distinction is meaningless for understanding
the others which establish and “explain” cer- the “causes” of our experiences. At this point I will try to clarify some of the
tain regularities in our experiences of these In Bateson’s (1972) terms, whenever sci- differences between Ernst von Glasersfeld
others. Our task, also in the “interpersonal” entists use the notion of the “black box” they and Humberto Maturana by positioning
domain, is to “get by the constraints” which are making a conventional agreement to stop their approaches in relation to Realism. Both
are continually posed to us. One has to trying to explain things at a certain point – at authors define themselves in epistemological
“squeeze between the bars of the constraints” least temporarily. In this sense, von Glasers- positions far away from that of “naïve real-
– but how one manages to achieve this is not feld’s use of the notion of the black box is his ism.” Let us recall, in summary form, some of
determined by the environment. way of clearly signalling the limits to his task the primary features of both theorists – why
To be more clear about his use of the con- – of specifying what can and cannot be they are variously radical in their departures
cept of “adaptation” and viability in this con- explained in his model of knowing, and what from the mainstream of thinking.
text von Glasersfeld notes that: will necessarily be left out.
“What organisms adapt to, and what ulti- This characterises von Glasersfeld’s view Ernst von Glasersfeld’s model is
mately determines the pragmatic viabil- that there is a strict “inside–outside” differ- radical because he says that “the
ity of their constructs, are certain regular- entiation of the person/environment rela- map is not the territory.”
ities in the input–output relations the tionship – and this is another place where [ The “map” cannot ever be the territory.
organism registers, with respect to the Maturana takes off in a different direction. [ The “map” can never be compared to the
black box which they experience as ‘envi- Maturana uses different metaphors to that of presumed territory.
ronment’ or ‘world.’ … The structures he von Glasersfeld’s black box when he [ The “map” is where we know and create
calls ‘things,’ ‘events,’ ‘stages,’ and ‘pro- describes the organisational closure of the meanings for our experiential world.
cesses’ are the result of the particular way autonomous system. He has often used the [ Environment is a “black box.” We can
in which he himself has coordinated his image of an aeroplane pilot flying and land- only know what it is not.
‘particles of experience.’ (Glasersfeld ing his plane (on a dark night with zero visi- [ We are forever banished from the Garden
1987, p. 113) bility) by using his instrument panel, or the of Eden of Ontological Truths.
However for Maturana this distinction of image of a submarine captain guiding his [ “Inside–Here Vs Outside–There” is a fun-
“inside/outside” is blurred to the point of craft “sightless” to the outside world, but damental distinction, reminding us that
irrelevance. Since the person’s structure- who, by using his electronic instruments, we can say nothing about the ontological
determined system has instantiated its cogni- succeeds in his task. So here, while von Gla- status of the world we experience.
tive domain there is little sense in even mak- sersfeld uses the “black box” imagery to be [ Environment is a type of “obstacle race.”
ing this “inside/outside” distinction. careful to maintain his “inside/outside dis- [ The notion of “fit” and “viability” is cen-
“This circularity, this connection between tinction, Maturana (1987) instead depicts tral in describing the relationship of the
action and experience, this inseparability the person as operating blind to, and out of person to their world.
between a particular way of being and all awareness of, what an observer would call From a whimsical viewpoint, this model
how the world appears to us, tells us that the person’s “medium” or environment (per- appears to me as if an endless experiential
every act of knowing brings forth a haps like Piaget’s “self uncognizant of Sudoku puzzle where we may exclude or
world … all doing is knowing, and all itself ”). eliminate numbers from every cell, but we
knowing is doing.”(Maturana & Varela “All that exists for the man inside the sub- may never fill in the “actual number” which
1987, p.26) marine are indicator readings, their tran- occupies any cell. The whole matrix must
This contrasts sharply with von Glasers- sitions, and ways of obtaining specific always remain blank! With this in mind it is
feld’s notion that the environment is a “black relations between them. It is only for us on easy to understand the frustrations with
box” for the observer. Instead for Maturana the outside, who see how relations change which many readers greet von Glasersfeld’s
there is no “outside-as-black-box” because between the submarine and its environ- model!
the “system-in-its-medium” is the result of ment, that the submarine’s behaviour Von Glasersfeld (1987) describes the situ-
millions of years of co-ontogenic structural exists and that it appears more or less ade- ation as follows:
drift. Rather, for Maturana, the person oper- quate according to the consequences “…the only indication we may get of the
ates not only as if there is no “black box” but involved.” (Maturana & Varela 1987, ‘real’ structure of the environment is
as if there were no “outside” at all. p. 137) through the organisms and the species
So here we can see the radical conse- and also they say that, that have been extinguished; the viable
quences of the fact that the structure-deter- “… for the operation of the nervous sys- ones that survive merely constitute a
mined system is implicative in nature. The tem, there is no inside or outside, but only selection of solutions among an infinity of
structure-determined system implies a very maintenance of correlations that continu- potential solutions that might be equally
specific medium as a structural extension of ously change (like the indicator instru- viable … What I suggest now, is that the
itself. In implying this medium the system ments in the submarine) …” (Maturana relationship between what we know, i.e.,
brings forth a world where it is in adaptive co- & Varela 1987, p.169) our knowledge, is similar to the relation-

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 61

philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism & biology of cognition

ship between organisms and their envi- Where von Glasersfeld sary nutrients will be there for it to be able
ronment. In other words, we construct to grow.” (Maturana 2004, pp. 198–199).
ideas, hypotheses, theories, and models, and Maturana part Maturana describes a world where organ-
and as long as they survive, which is to say, company ism and medium are structurally intersected,
as long as our experience can be success- co-extensive and coessential. There is no
fully fitted into them, they are viable.” It is clear that having created two different “separation”; there is no “in here/out there”
(Glasersfeld 1987, p. 139) maps these two authors end up in different except for some observer. All of this means
worlds. It is interesting to note that despite that Maturana is not at all a “constructivist”
Humberto Maturana’s model is their many conversations and familiarity with (indeed he has always denied it) but rather
radical because he says that “the one another’s writings, they are unable to put occupies a novel position in the epistemolog-
map is the territory.” a consensual finger on where exactly they do ical chart which I see to be based upon a form
[ There is no distinction between “map” not agree – or to explain how it is that they end of “structural realism.”
and “territory” because we create our up in very different worlds – “worlds apart.” I want to suggest that this “super-realist”
reality by living it, enacting it. For this Recently, Maturana (2004) has jokingly position can be seen as a novel location in the
reason the observer ends up in a position described himself as, “a super-realist who varied terrain of the epistemologies which
which is indistinguishable from that of believes in the existence of innumerable already contain these well-known features,
the realist observer. equally valid realities. Moreover, all these dif- among many others:
[ At the moment of perceiving one cannot ferent realities are not relative realities Naïve Realism, Direct Realism, Critical
distinguish a hallucination from a per- because asserting their relativity would entail Realism, Representationalism, Trivial Con-
ception. the assumption of an absolute reality as the structivism, Critical Constructivism, Con-
[ At the moment of perceiving/acting you reference point against which their relativity strained Constructivism, Communal Con-
have no “choice” – you do that which your would be measured.” (Maturana 2004, p. 34). structivism, Pragmatism, Scepticism, Social
structure-determined system is set up to Over millions of years of co-ontogenic Constructionism, Phenomenalism, Internal
do. structural drift with a medium, the structures Realism, Radical Constructivism, Radical
[ To all intents and purposes “the map is of the human body are configured in an infer- Idealism, and what I would now like to call
the territory.” ential, anticipatory and implicative manner. radical realism.
[ Environment is an intimate part of the The structures anticipate the ongoingness of It is “radical realism” because the implica-
evolution and survival pattern of the those congruent structural features of the tion of Maturana’s theory is that we can
unity “person + medium.” environment. A Martian examining a human directly and intimately know the “reality” we
[ The “Inside–Outside” distinction per- body on Mars could come up with a very are living because it is we ourselves who have
tains to the position of an observer. Mat- accurate description of what our environ- made it. It is not a black box for us, it is our cog-
urana reminds us to be very careful in our ment is like, doing a kind of “reverse engineer- nitive domain and we can know about our
observer’s “book-keeping” regarding ing” from the body’s structures to infer the effective actions in this domain. So the way I
from what point of view we are making necessary properties of the medium with intend the term “radical realism” arises from
our statements. which the human system is structurally inter- the fact that our sense of “objective reality”
[ Environment is implied by the structure sected for survival. For example, the fact that derives radically from our “subjective reality-
of the person, and as such is “co-exten- we have lungs implicates the existence of a making.” This in turn derives from the impli-
sive” with the bodyhood of that person. medium with oxygen and other gases for cativeness of structure determinism. So this is
Environment cannot be an “obstacle,” breathing; the presence of a stomach impli- the sense in which I read Maturana as a “radical
even though the person can make a “miss- cates a medium with consumable food realist.” We have no choice in the world we our-
take.” objects; the structure of the eyes implicates selves have instantiated through our structure-
[ The notions of “fit” and “viability” are the presence of a certain range of light waves, determined system. What we do next is always
replaced by Maturana’s emphasis on the and so on through the whole range of bodily structure-determined and thus has the sense of
minimum “unit of survival” which is structures. Maturana (2004) himself puts this “inevitability” that we attribute to an “objective
defined as “the person + medium.” Here a bit more romantically where he says: reality.” With the dissolution of the “inside/
the survival of both is in question, and “The fundamental condition of existence is outside distinction we attribute our lived expe-
not just whether one manages to “fit the trust. When a butterfly has slipped out of its rience of our own structural objectivity to what
constraints.” Survival depends on the cocoon, its wings and antennae, its trunk an observer would call our “environment.”
simultaneous double conservation of and its whole bodyhood trust that there will Considering this mapping of Maturana as
“internal coherence” and of “external fit- be air and supporting winds, and flowers contrasted with von Glasersfeld, we can under-
ting.” from which to suck nectar. The structural stand how it is that Maturana is often misun-
Clearly, in these two summaries we have correspondence between the butterfly and derstood as a “determinist,” “behaviourist,”
two very different forms of “radicality” lead- its world is an expression of implicit trust. “cognitivist,” “reductionist” etc which are all
ing to different positions in the range of epis- When a seed gets wet and begins to germi- positions defined in part by their sharing a real-
temologies. nate, it does so trusting that all the neces- ist epistemology.

62 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism & biology of cognition

Conclusion explanations in order to produce rational This kind of puzzle may arise due to the
knowledge, while for Maturana the organ- error of attempting to apply concepts and
While von Glasersfeld claims that the person ism/environment is a matter of flowing in the language descriptions beyond the domain
or cognitive system may make contact with phenomenal domain of structural coupling wherein they were evolved or constructed. In
ontological reality only when and where their (of experiencing the structural relatedness) – George Kelly’s terms we are attempting to
schemes to eliminate perturbations break out of which, later, the system-observer may apply a construct way beyond its “range of
down – when our constructions are invali- or may not have to enter the domain of expla- convenience,” creating only the illusion of
dated, we can know only what the world is not nations to work out what “really happened” having “described” or even “explained” the
– for Maturana this is not the case because he during a given experience. From this point of other phenomena arising in a different
has positioned his observer-actor in the view, von Glasersfeld is always already at the domain.
midst of a process of structural coherences business of producing rational knowledge, In trying to warn us about the error of
(co-ontogenic structural drift etc.). For Mat- while Maturana may describe the person or “transcendental illusion,” Kant (1968) urges
urana this means that the system cannot system as being simply in a drift of ongoing us to pay adequate attention to the differen-
make a “mistake,” and that it is always in the structural transformations, without neces- tiating boundaries which mark off one terri-
“right place” because of its long history of sarily arriving to a domain of “reflections.” tory as appropriate and another as not for the
structural drift in the medium. For von Glasersfeld the main focus is on application of certain categories. He says he is
We can also appreciate how Ernst von Gla- the cognitive effort to make sense of experi- warning us about
sersfeld therefore holds the bulwark position ence, rather than on describing events in the “… actual principles which incite us to
on the extreme borders of “idealism” just physiological or biological domain. The tear down all those boundary-fences and
before it goes on to various forms of solipsis- bodily senses have already produced the to seize possession of an entirely new
tic closure. As von Glasersfeld says, experiences which must now be organised to domain which recognises no limits of
“… a model is a good model whenever the make sense, and to fit with the existing frame- demarcation.” (Kant 1968, p. 299)
results of its functioning show no discrep- work of sense that we have built up. But also, In the present case it is perhaps important
ancy relative to the functioning of the in the mind, because there is no “embodi- to realise that the theorising of von Glasers-
black box. That relation, I claim, is analo- ment,” we can invent or imagine all sorts of feld and Maturana takes place in two very dif-
gous to the relation between our knowl- things to be going on. In fact this is what the ferent domains of activity: one in the philo-
edge and our experience. Given that there mind does best; endless inventions, conjec- sophical domain of inquiry into our
is nothing but a hypothetical connection tures and hypotheses are churned out given possibilities for knowing; the other in the
between our experience and what philos- half an excuse. This in effect is the source of construction of a biological basis for knowl-
ophers call ontological reality, that reality the problems of many impatients1 in psycho- edge, language, consciousness and more.
has for us the status of a black box.” (Gla- therapy who enter into self-paralysing self- Along with Piaget, von Glasersfeld recog-
sersfeld 1995, p. 157) interrupting loops of negative, frightening, nises that there are two very different
In this analogy I believe we have a major destructive and maladaptive ideas – which domains of “survival,” one at the biological
clue for understanding where von Glasersfeld produce a very poor “fit” indeed. This is an level where there is at stake the viability of the
and Maturana part company. Von Glasersfeld example which helps to clarify the fact that organism/environment relation; and the
uses the analogy of organism/environment to for von Glasersfeld the constraints that we other at the level of “cognitive reflection”
illustrate how he conceives of the relationship have to “fit” with are not necessarily inherent where what is at stake is the viability of the
of what we know to our own experiencing. in an ontological reality (Glasersfeld 1987, p. person’s conceptual network or “construct
However, as an analogy it can only take us so 140). Rather, the dominant constraints arise system.” It is clear that the process of adapta-
far because on the one hand von Glasersfeld from within our own patterns of constructions tion in the biological domain is different in
is locked into the strictly limiting domain of and the ways in which we have learned to many ways to adaptation in the cognitive
experiencing and how one may variously organise these into a working system. domain. There are different forms of “viabil-
construct meaning for these experiences. In By now, at the end of this article, it seems ity” and “instrumentality” pertinent in the
the case of organisms and their environment clear that the solution to the puzzle of von two different domains of action – on the bio-
we are in a very different phenomenal Glasersfeld as to how and why his theorising logical level it is literally a matter of survival,
domain of activity. This is where Maturana’s and that of Maturana become so different lies while on the conceptual level it is a matter of
structure determinism takes care of survival in what Kant called the “transcendental illu- maintaining one’s internal coherence or
– it is a question of “know-how,” and not, as sion” – the error of trying to use the same lan- equilibrium. It is interesting to note again
for von Glasersfeld, a question of “say-how” guage descriptions for two incompatible phe- here that for Maturana “survival” is defined
(saying or describing or cognitively con- nomena, or for two different phenomenal as the simultaneous conservation of both
structing sense out of our experiences). In domains that are non-collapsible (or mutu- one’s internal coherence (organisational clo-
effect, we cannot really compare these two ally untranslatable). I have tried to grasp this sure) and the conservation of one’s fit or rel-
domains proposed in this analogy because difference by shifting backwards and for- evance to one’s niche. This is another major
von Glasersfeld is describing the interfacing wards across what seems to be an unbridge- difference in the focus of the writings and
of a domain of experience with the domain of able gap between these two theorists. research of the two authors under examina-

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 63

philosophical-epistemological radical constructivism & biology of cognition

tion here. Ernst von Glasersfeld once

described constructivism as “a theory of what
thinking produces” – which is sometimes
called knowledge – and this shows clearly the
domain of optimal application of his model,
which indeed has seen more successful appli-
cations in the field of teaching and training
than in any other.
So while von Glasersfeld is extremely care-
ful to stay with his definition of RC as a “the-
ory of knowing” and avoids any attempts or
temptations to describe what “exists,” Mat-
urana’s writings do seem to be replete with
affirmations of what exists, such as the
description of the “living” as being “autopoi-
etic.” Indeed, the main disagreements that
von Glasersfeld expresses in relation to Mat-
urana’s writings are to do with asking how Note A real foundation for family therapy? Psy-
Maturana comes to take as “given” many dif- chotherapy 24: 455–481.
ferent features of his theory, as if he knew how 1. I use the term “impatients” for those who Johnson, D. K. (1991) Reclaiming reality: A
“things really are.” This is a major parting of participate in psychotherapy because the critique of Maturana’s ontology of the
the ways since von Glasersfeld’s entire effort medical term “patient” has nothing to do observer. Methodologia 9: 7–31.
is to present a model of how the cognising with what goes on in psychotherapy, and Kant, I. (1968) Critique of pure reason
subject is able to construct their knowledge moreover, unless the person has a certain (Translated by N. Kemp Smith). Mac-
without any reference to a “given” or “pre- impatience about getting on with things millan: New York.
existing reality.” they are unlikely to make much progress Kelly, G. (1955) The psychology of personal
It seems therefore that the main impossi- in changing their life experiences. constructs. 2 Volumes. Norton: New York.
bility in “joining” the theorising of von Gla- Kenny, V. (1989) Anticipating autopoiesis:
sersfeld with that of Maturana lies in the fact Personal construct psychology and self-
that von Glasersfeld has focussed on the References organizing systems. In: Goudsmit, A. (ed.)
adaptations and learnings that go on at the Self-organisation in psychotherapy.
“cognitive” level whereas Maturana’s work is Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of Springer-Verlag: Heidelberg.
principally in the biological domain. Perhaps mind. Ballantine books: New York. Maturana, H. (1986) The biological founda-
if Maturana is taken seriously in his repeated Foerster, H. von & Glasersfeld, E. von (2001) tions of self consciousness and the physical
denials that he is a “constructivist” we would Come ci si inventa. Odradek: Rome. domain of existence. (personal communi-
more readily recognise the non-collapsible Glasersfeld, E. von (1984) An introduction to cation.)
distance between him and von Glasersfeld. radical constructivism. In: Watzlawick, P. Maturana, H. R. & Poerksen, B. (2004) From
To this end I have found it useful to locate (ed.) The invented reality. Norton: New being to doing: The origins of the biology
Maturana’s approach as existing in the inter- York, pp. 17–40. of cognition. Carl-Auer: Heidelberg.
stices of theory between the various “con- Glasersfeld, E. von (1987) The construction Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1987) The tree
structivisms” and the various “realisms.” of knowledge: Contributions to concep- of knowledge: The biological roots of
Since Maturana seems to “go beyond” the tual semantics. Intersystems Publications: human understanding. New Science
epistemological positioning of von Glasers- Salinas CA. Library: Boston.
feld’s Radical Constructivism, and since Glasersfeld, E. von (1988) The reluctance to Mingers, J. (1995) Self-producing systems:
Maturana is clearly outwith the domain of change a way of thinking. The Irish Jour- Implications and applications of auto-
the “realists” (despite the impressions of nal of Psychology 9(1): 83–90. poiesis. Plenum Press: New York.
“leaking realism”), I think the name “radical Glasersfeld, E. von (1991) Distinguishing the Piaget, J. (1971) Insights and illusions of phi-
realism” describes this interstitial epistemo- observer: An attempt at interpreting Mat- losophy. Meridian: New York.
logical space which Maturana has brought urana. Methodologia 8: 57–68. Wittgenstein, L. (1933) Tractatus logico-
forth in his theorising over the past 40 years Glasersfeld, E. von (1995) Radical construc- philosophicus. Kegan-Paul: London.
or so. tivism: A way of knowing and learning.
Falmer Press: London. Received: 14 September 2006
Held, B. & Pols, E. (1987) Dell on Maturana: Accepted: 7 February 2007

64 Constructivist Foundations
cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

The Co-Emergence of Parts and Wholes

in Psychological Individuation
Bernard Scott A Cranfield University (UK) <>

what I hope is a reasonably comprehensible

Purpose:The purpose of the paper is to provide a constructivist account of the “self as
linear narrative. I begin with a discussion of
subject” that avoids the need for any metaphysical assumptions.
the cybernetic concept of “organisation.” This
Findings:The thesis developed in this paper is that the human “psychological individual,”
is followed by a more extended discussion of
“self” or “subject” is an emergent within the nexus of human social interaction.With
the genesis of self-consciousness and person-
respect to psychological and social wholes (composites) there is no distinction between
hood, drawing on the seminal ideas of Piaget,
the form of the elements and the form of the composites they constitute, i.e., all elements
Mead and Vygotsky and the more recent
have the form of composites. Further, recursively, composites may serve as elements
cybernetically inspired formulations of von
within higher order composites. Implications for a rational theory of ethics are discussed.
Foerster and Maturana. There is then a brief
Originality/Value:The thesis contributes in a fundamental way to the research pro-
look at the logic of interpersonal interaction
gramme of radical constructivism by demonstrating that metaphysical assumptions about
and the notion of “theories of mind.” This
the nature of the “subject” are not an a priori necessity. Although the thesis in itself is not
leads on to an overview of Gordon Pask’s
original, the paper offers a useful synthesis of ideas from a number of key thinkers in the
cybernetic conversation theory, which, with
disciplines of cybernetics, biology, psychology and philosophy.
its distinction between two kinds of organisa-
Keywords: Psychological individuation, co-emergence, collective, self-consciousness,
tion, the “mechanical” and the “psychologi-
interpersonal interaction, theory of mind, conversation theory, conscience.
cal,” affords a useful synthesis of much that
has gone before. Finally, there are some
Introduction “As to the concept of self, constructivism – thoughts on implications about ethics, with
as an empirical epistemology – can pro- reference to the views of von Foerster and von
Chapter 6 of Ernst von Glasersfeld’s book vide a more or less viable model for the Glasersfeld.
(1995) Radical Constructivism: A Way of Know- construction of the experiential self; but I would like to draw the reader’s attention
ing and Learning is entitled, “Constructing the self as the locus of subjective awareness to the writings of Ranulph Glanville which
Agents: The Self and Others.” In the third to last seems to be a metaphysical assumption also address foundational concerns about
paragraph of that chapter, he states, “…the and lies outside the domain of empirical ethics and the nature of selves and others from
subject creates not only objects to which inde- construction.” (Glasersfeld 1995, p. 128)2 a cybernetic perspective. (See, e.g., Glanville
pendent existence is attributed but also others The metaphysical status of the subject 1988, 2002). There is not space here to indi-
to whom the subject imputes such status and leaves von Glasersfeld open to critiques from cate the many parallels between Glanville’s
capabilities as are conceivable, given his or her “postmodernists” and “social construction- discussion of “subjects” as self-reproducing
own experience” (Glasersfeld 1995, p. 128). ists,” who both emphasise that the “subject” is “objects” and the thesis developed in this
Much as I admire von Glasersfeld for so elo- constructed or occurs “in language” (see, e.g., paper. I have written about Glanville’s
quently setting out the principles of radical Salmon (1989) and McCarty and Schwandt approach in Scott (2005).
constructivism, I believe his assumption about (2000). From the standpoint of rational sci-
the existence of a “subject” and “others” is one ence, those positions lack coherence and clear
that can be usefully unpacked and elucidated. empirical foundations. The thesis presented On organisation
As its stands, von Glasersfeld’s reference to a here can be seen as an attempt to develop the
“subject” posits an entity whose genesis still required coherent, well-founded explana- Ashby in his 1956 Introduction to Cybernetics
has to be explained.1 The thesis of co-emer- tion.3 writes: “Cybernetics might in fact be defined
gence proposed here is intended to provide The paper began as a collage of extracts as the study of systems that are open to energy
such an explanation. The explanation provides from various sources, including some of my but closed to information and control – sys-
a constructivist account of the self as the agent own earlier papers, which, as a set, were tems that are “information tight” (Ashby
of construction. It thus avoids the need for any intended to provide the context and justifica- 1956). Von Foerster, Pask, Maturana, von
metaphysical assumptions about the nature of tion for the thesis proposed. Through discus- Glasersfeld, Glanville and Luhmann have all
the self, as von Glasersfeld seems to believe is sion at the PIE conference (see footnote 1) been particularly alive to the epistemological
the case when, in the final paragraph of the and further reflection, I have refined and consequences of this “organisational clo-
chapter referred to, he states, modified that set and present them here as sure.”4 In brief, an organism does not receive

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 65
cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

“information” as something transmitted to it, because “the representation is in the act.” Language arises as behaviours (“languag-
rather, as a circularly organised system it From the starting point of acknowledging ing”) that coordinate “coordinations of coor-
interprets perturbations as being informative. that living systems are organisationally dinations” (Maturana & Varela 1980; cf.
It is important to note that this use of the term closed, we now go on to consider how, in phy- Vygotsky 1962; Luria 1961).
“information” is clearly different from the logenesis and ontogenesis, such systems Through mutual coordinations, organ-
usage in computer science (“information become “self-conscious.” isms may come to compute themselves and
processing” meaning, strictly, data process- others as “selves,” giving rise to the “I/Thou”
ing, the transmission of data and the transfor- relationship. That is, by becoming observers
mation of one data “pattern” into another) or On the development of of “others,” we “transcend into the domain of
by Shannon and Weaver (a measure of the self-observation” where “I am the observed
surprise value of a “message”) or Stonier (a
self-consciousness relation between myself and observing
measure of the extent to which a system is “Universal grammar” – that which is com- myself ” (Foerster 1980).6
“ordered”). The use of the term by Ashby is mon to all “languages” when viewed, à la Maturana (1995) makes essentially the
essentially the same as that of Gregory Bate- Chomsky, in the abstract as syntactic and lex- same points in a more elaborated form (the
son in his aphorism “Information is a differ- ical systems – requires a logical syntax with reader should perhaps be aware that von Foe-
ence that makes a difference” and that of Jersi negation. In Piaget’s account, this logic is rster’s and Maturana’s ideas are very closely
Kerzinski (“Information cannot be separated imminent in the logic of action and the con- aligned, von Foerster at one time having been
from its utilisation”), and that of Heinz von cept of reversibility (actions may be a mentor for Maturana), that “[t]he experi-
Foerster (“The environment contains no “undone”). Integration of sensori-motor ence that we connote as we use the word con-
information; it is as it is”). schemata into coordinated wholes both gen- sciousness is one of self-distinction as we dis-
Here are some remarkably parallel com- erates “object permanence” in the environ- tinguish ourselves making distinctions”
ments on “circularity” of organisation from ment and a differentiation of subject from (p. 163) and that “consciousness takes place as
Alfred Korzybski, the founder of “General object. With the “semiotic function,” the a particular relational dynamics when an
Semantics.” From his book Science and Sanity organism may represent its own actions (cf. organism operates as participant in a domain
(1958, p. 12): Maturana’s phrase “interact with its own of recursive distinctions in language.” (ibid.)
“Language […] represents the highest and interactions,” Maturana 1969) There is an Thus, for Maturana, consciousness is experi-
latest physiological and neurological func- accompanying “awareness of awareness”; in enced by participants in “languaging.”
tion of an organism. It is […] of uniquely so far as the organism’s actions are part of a “Languaging takes place as recursive con-
human circular structure, to use a logical coordinated, co-adapted whole, there is sensual coordinations of consensual coor-
term – or of spiral structure, to use a four- awareness of self (cf. Kagan 1979, p. 293), dinations of behaviour […] There is a
dimensional or a physico-chemical-aspect though, as yet, no stable “self-image” or “self- recursion whenever […] the re-applica-
term […] In these processes an ‘effect’ consciousness.” tion of an operation occurs on the conse-
becomes a causative factor for future As there is a “sensori-motor” or “enactive” quences of its previous application […]
effects, influencing them in a manner par- logic of action, so there is a tacit logic of inter- Any level of recursion may recursively
ticularly subtle, variable, flexible, and of an action. An organism’s adaptations coordi- become a domain of objects that operates
endless number of possibilities. ‘Knowing,’ nate sensory and motor activity. In the as a ground level for further recursions.”
if taken as an end-product, must be con- “dance” of social activity, these coordinations
sidered also as a causative psychophysio- become coordinated. Piaget (1956, p. 256) ABOUT THE AUTHOR
logical factor of the next stage of the says of the former: “Without a mathematical
semantic response […] This structural or logical apparatus, there is no direct ‘read- Bernard Scott is Head of the Flexible Learn-
and functional circularity introduces real ing of facts,’ because this is a prerequisite. ing Support Centre, Cranfield University,
difficulties […] Before we can be fully Such an apparatus is derived from experi- Defence Academy, Shrivenham. Previous
human, we must first know how to handle ence, the abstraction being taken from the appointments have been with: the Univer-
our nervous responses – a circular affair.” action performed upon the object and not sity of the Highlands and Islands Millennium
Both Gregory Bateson and Heinz von Foe- from the object itself.” This is essentially what Institute, De Montfort University, the Open
rster cite Korzybski’s “the map is not the terri- Mead says of social interaction: its logic arises University and Liverpool John Moores Uni-
tory” with approval. as an abstraction from the experience of versity. Dr. Scott’s research interests include:
As von Foerster notes, consideration of the interaction. (Mead’s ideas are elaborated on Theories of learning and teaching, course
circularly closed organisation of living sys- further, below). In this logic, the distinction design and organisational change and foun-
tems obliges one to adopt a constructivist between participants arises and with it, the dational issues in systems theory and cyber-
epistemology,5 as developed for example by “social signs” that will serve later to encode netics. He has published extensively on
Jean Piaget. Piaget (1972) develops his logic. Together, the “tacit” logics of action these topics. Dr. Scott is a Fellow of the
“genetic epistemology” from the notion of the and interaction provide the “semantic base” Cybernetics Society and an Associate Fel-
living system with “cybernetic circuits in that, when “digitalised” as “units of mean- low of the British Psychological Society.
equilibrium.” His cognitive structures arise ing,” gives rise to a syntax.

66 Constructivist Foundations
cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

“Objects arise in language in the first cised the mind of the great 19th Century logi- Note that the model serves well for the
recursion of consensual coordinations of cian, George Boole, throughout his life. Here tacit, non-languaging “awareness of aware-
consensual coordinations of behaviour. is a simple example, taken from his writings, ness,” experienced to some extent by all living
[…] Observing arises as an operation in a of the “law of change of quantity to quality” at creatures (the pre-linguistic “re-ligio” experi-
second recursion that distinguishes a dis- work. ence of self that Kagan discusses). The dia-
tinction […] The observer appears in a Take an arbitrary circle as a starting point logic form of I/Thou awareness in which “I”/
third order recursion that distinguishes and draw smaller circles of fixed diameter “Thou” languaging emerges is not encom-
distinguishing […] . Self-consciousness whose centres all lie on the perimeter of the passed. The form of such a model is discussed
(self-awareness) arises in a fourth order first circle: below in the section “The logic of interper-
recursion in which observing the observer sonal perception.”
takes place.” (ibid., p. 164).
“The self arises as an experience in the
experience of self-consciousness […] self- George Herbert Mead:
consciousness and self take place in the
dynamic relations of languaging […] The
Self as social process
distinction of the self is an overwhelming Mead’s (1934) key concept is that of the “sig-
experience […] . once it takes place the nificant symbol.”8 A better label, perhaps, is
distinction becomes the referential “the social sign.” Its significance lies in the fact
ground for all other distinctions […] The As the number of smaller circles that communication employing such a sign
experience of the self as an object obscures approaches infinity, a new form emerges: system is between participants who can “take
its original constitution as a relation […] the perspective of the other.” Such signs not
in the relational dynamics of languaging only have an agreed or shared meaning, in the
animals.” (ibid., p. 165). sense that an external observer notes that they
I have tried to summarise Maturana’s are used in similar ways by the participants,
observations, as his somewhat idiosyncratic they also have agreed or shared meanings
prose style and arcane vocabulary can be a lit- from the perspective of the participants. In
tle daunting and obscure what, in fact, is a brief, the participants, too, are observers.
very rigorous line of argument. Human consciousness and awareness, as
In the next section, I develop the key idea now known, is an evolved phenomenon. In
of the co-emergence of individuals and collec- modern times, Rastafarians have a concept of
tives in psychological individuation. I go on in self and “super-self ” encapsulated in the for-
the sections that follow to elaborate on this mula “I and I.” Some accounts of the cogni-
process, first by looking in more detail at tion of Australian aborigines suggest that sim-
Mead’s concept of the self as a social process ilarly, they lack a distinct concept of
and then, in turn, by fleshing this out by using individuality: the “individual” psyche is in
concepts from the more recent literature on direct contact with the powers that have cre-
interpersonal perception. My account of self ated the cosmos.
and other dynamics and psychological indi- Mead’s account is a framework sufficient
viduation culminates in a brief overview of to account for this variety of consciousness.
key ideas from “conversation theory” (CT) as There are now two “new circles,” each con- The “I” emerges in the dialectic of reciprocal
developed by Gordon Pask. CT is a compre- centric with the first circle. role taking: taking the other’s perspective. The
hensively rich theoretical framework, partic- The key proposition of this paper is that “generalised other” is internalised. Thought
ularly useful for unifying much work that has with respect to psychological and social wholes becomes an inner dialogue between perspec-
gone before.7 (composites) there is no distinction between tives: the self is a social process. “Self-image”
the form of the elements and the form of the is a social construct and, as noted, may take
composites they constitute, i.e., all elements different forms in different cultures.
Emergence as have the form of composites. The above is a It is difficult to do justice to Mead’s work
simple model for this. In words, “A psycholog- in a few sentences. What I admire most is the
singularity ical individual is a composite of concepts – but “holistic” nature of his thought. His concern
Above von Foerster’s use of the phrase “tran- a concept, as a stable, reproducible system is a with thought and language is contained in his
scendence into another domain” was noted in composite of concepts, is a psychological indi- larger concern with the relation between an
discussing the emergence of self-conscious- vidual. Recursively, a social system is a com- individual and the society of which he is a
ness as a singular event. Thom, amongst oth- posite of psychological individuals and as a part. From these concerns, he constructs a
ers, has extended the classic mathematical stable, reproducible system is itself (has the more general cosmology and epistemology
concept of a “singularity.” This problem exer- form of) a psychological individual.” (Mead 1938 and Miller 1973).

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 67

cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

A(B(A(T))) Level of Understanding or Not B(A(B(T))) feeling each other’s feel- if one participant, say A, has an accurate view
ings and feelings may be of the other’s, B’s, perspectives and metaper-
A(B(T)) Level of Realisation or Not B(A(T)) shared, including a feel- spectives, whatever they are, and if B’s view of
A(T) Base Level (Agreement or Not) B(T) ing (or “sense”) of one- A is inaccurate, A is in a potential position of
ness and deep, tacit power or influence over B. Consider, for
Table 1: Dyadic interpersonal perception (after Laing, Phillipson, understanding. example, the relations between parent and
and Lee 1966): A and B are participants.T is the topic, proposition The effects of affect child, teacher and learner.9
or object being contemplated or perceived. A(T) means A’s are not directly observ- In Laing, Phillipson, and Lee’s model for
perception of T; A(B(T)) means A’s perception of B’s perception of able as overt stimuli, the dyad, two perspective levels above the base
T … and so on. responses and reinforc- level are drawn. Howard’s results show that, in
ers, though, presumably, general, if one is to represent all possible con-
In Mead’s analysis, the semiotic function, there are physiological concomitants. The figurations of perspectives of perspectives for
the use of speech and tool using co-evolve. subtle role of affect in human communication n persons that account for possible stability
The hand uses a tool in a social context. Skills is largely missed in “behavioural” approaches (coordination of action) or lack of it, it is nec-
are transmitted through sign and gesture. to analyses of infant-caretaker interaction. essary to have n factorial levels above the base
With skilled manipulation comes the internal There is a case to be made for the re-evalua- level. This fact is in itself a possible reason for
trial and error of “inhibited” responses. tion of “learning theory” approaches to child error in human communication.10
“Social signs” first appear as “inhibited” development, with perhaps a place being We may conceive of a system where there
(reflected upon) intention movements. found for the application of these constructs is, in the words of Peter Cariani (personal
Mead’s conclusion, that thought is an in the “microstructure” of the interplay of communication; see also Cariani 2000),
internalised dialogue, comes close to affect in dyadic interaction. An effective and “[S]witching between regenerative, stable,
Vygotsky’s (1962) thesis but, whereas intellectually satisfying “social behaviour- resonance states […]Those systems that can
Vygotsky is at some pains to distinguish the ism,” as proposed by Mead, might then serve reproduce their own organization […] are
“inner monologue” from the “external dia- to unify extant theories and approaches. potentially conscious […] They are organisa-
logue,” Mead conceives the former, too, as a tionally closed by virtue of their circular
dialogue, as conversational in form. Unlike internal dynamics.” We may then conceive of
Vygotsky, Mead has his concept of “the self as The logic of two such entities synchronised in interaction,
a social process” to guide his thinking. where each is being “in-formed” of the other
Vygotsky’s vision does not extend that far; he
interpersonal and where we can see the dynamics of the one
sees only the oppositions: in “internal perception reproduced in the other and vice versa,
speech,” we know what we are thinking about. clearly showing the stable “eigen values”
At one point, he does use the phrase “when we The work of Laing, Phillipson, and Lee (1966) where both are “computing” the same
converse with ourselves” and likens the abbre- was one of the first studies of interpersonal per- “object” and are “computing” that they both
viated, “tacit” knowing of intimates to the ception that clearly articulated the way in “know” that is what is happening. They may
abbreviations in inner speech, but the conver- which human communication entails both both then “compute” a second “object” such
sational aspect of inner speech is not empha- sender and recipient having perspectives of that they both “know” the second “object”
sised, it remains tacit in Vygotsky’s thought. each other’s perspectives, that is, metaperspec- stands for or “represents” the first “object,”
Newson and Newson, in a critique of tives. This requirement is imminent in G. H. i.e., the second “object” is a Meadian “signif-
Piaget’s account of cognitive development, Mead’s writings on the nature of a significant icant symbol.”
come very close to a similar position to that of symbol, one that “arouses in the sender the
Mead, in their insistence that “Knowledge same response as in the receiver” (Mead 1934).
itself arises within an interaction process” Laing, Phillipson, and Lee’s construction Gordon Pask’s
[…] “Knowing, and being able to communi- for dyadic communication is shown in
cate what we know need to be viewed as oppo- Table 1.
conversation theory
site sides of the same coin” (Newson & New- In developmental psychology, being able From different starting points, Pask (1975)
son 1979, p. 272). They argue that the to compute such perspectives and metaper- has arrived at similar conclusions to those of
semiotic function arises out of the “primor- spectives is known as having “a theory of Mead. He characterises the “psychological
dial sharing situation” (cf. Werner & Kaplan mind” (Whiten 1991; Baron-Cohen and individual” as a “self-replicating system of
1963), in which mother (or other adult) and Wing 1994). Howard’s (1971) theory of meta- memories and concepts.” Figure 1 shows his
infant “share” an experience. This sharing is games has a similar structure for a two-person “skeleton of a conversation,” the necessary
“sensori-motor, affective, pre-symbolic,” in non-zero sum game, such as “prisoner’s distinctions made by an external observer.
short, shared awareness. Here Newson and dilemma.” The fundamental point of the con- First order signalling takes place in the causal
Newson come close to discussion of, to coin a structions is that they permit an analysis of action of processes on processes: knowing
phrase, the effect of affect on affect. Human power relations and conflict and stability leads to doing leads to knowing; memories
beings (and other organisms) are capable of between participants. As Laing et al point out, reproduce concepts that reproduce memo-

68 Constructivist Foundations
cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

ries. Thus, levels of cognition are distin-

guished as a “hierarchy of control.” A concept
is a procedure that “recognises, reproduces or participant A participant B
(e.g., teacher) (e.g., learner)
maintains a relation,” e.g., in context, riding
a bicycle, performing a calculation. A
description of a concept is a “task structure” memories memories
knowing (processes) (processes)
that says “what may be done.” A memory is a
(metacognitive) procedure that “recognises,
reproduces or maintains concepts,” for
example, in context, justifying a method or
providing a “chain of explanation” showing
how the understanding of particular con- concepts concepts
doing (processes) (processes)
cepts is derived from or entails the prior
understanding of other concepts. A descrip-
tion of a memory is an “entailment mesh”
that says “what may be known.”
Entailment meshes and task structures,
Behavioural interaction with shared “modelling facility”
which are coherent and consistent, describe in which concepts may be instantiated or exemplified
“domains” (e.g., a learnable/teachable thesis)
that support “viable” (reproducible) conver-
© Constructivist Foundations
sations (“psychological individuals”).
Second order signalling takes place in the
Figure 1: Pask’s “skeleton of a conversation.” The horizontal arrows refer to “provocative
“provocative” interaction of participants.
interaction” between participants. Pragmatically, any utterance has the form of a command,
Understanding implies shared perspectives;
interpreted (in context) at the level of knowing (learn! remember!) or at the level of doing
the cognitive processes of the two partici-
(do!). For B to understand A, he must be able to instantiate A’s concepts (as models or
pants are to some extent synchronised. In
exemplars) and also be able to show how A’s concepts are inter-related as learnable,
teaching and learning (Pask’s main concern),
memorable wholes.
the cognitions of one participant are literally
replicated in the other. One becomes the
other. Pask argues that the distinctions made […] If you think in mechanical terms, you insisted that you lived inside your head.
by the external observer of a conversation can think of a population of general-pur- Isn’t it evident that you are distributed
must, logically, also be made to characterise pose computers called ‘brains,’ in which, through a lot of these general-purpose
the cognition of an isolated psyche (cf. Ryle given a suitable programming language, it machines? Don’t you love? Don’t you dis-
1971). Here, replication is literally self-repli- is possible to run classes of programs. like? Don’t you take part in the self-images
cation. The “psychological individual” is a Now we are at liberty to redefine an indi- of other people? If you do you are saying
stable systemic whole, is “organisationally vidual as being not one head, one general- that you partake of the nature of a class of
closed.” Thus Pask distinguishes a level of purpose computing machine, but one programs. This is simply a statement of
organisation, of coherent structure above named class of programs. And we can that fact.
that of the biological, that applies both to interpret the reproduction of this named “I use the word ‘program’ to designate any
persons and the social systems that they class of programs, not at all in a biological well-defined ‘formula for’ or class of ‘for-
form. In his “inner conversation,” the person sense, but in the sense of reproducing and mulae for’ with the possibility of having
explains and justifies himself to himself. In perhaps evolving a class of programs bear- underspecified goals in it; in other words,
observing himself, he makes the same dis- ing the same name. This is consonant with it’s a heuristic procedure. I refer to the
tinctions as when acting as the external the motive of the individual to reproduce individual as a class of ‘formulae for […]
observation of a conversation. In the “outer himself; it does not introduce the problem me,’ where ‘me’ is my name. And the
conversations” that constitute social institu- of overpopulating the world with general- important point about this is that these
tions, the participants agree and disagree and purpose machines; and it does allow for “formulae for” might be run in any conve-
negotiate shared descriptions, explanations the perpetuation of the individual and the nient machine, including the brain […]
and justifications. Self-analysis reveals a sim- proper interpretation of the term ‘con- “In a sense there are two parallel sorts of
ilar interaction between “participating atti- sciousness,’ as an inbuilt wish to repro- evolution: there is biological evolution
tudes” and “points of view.” duce that which specifies me. This isn’t of going on, and then, because of this inter-
The following is attributed to Gordon Pask course such a strange point of view, pretation of the individual, one can per-
(quoted in Bateson 1972, pp. 307–309). because although you may be mildly ceive a separate sort of evolution that I
“I phrase it from the point of view of a offended if I call you a class of programs, refer to as ‘symbolic evolution,’ which is
‘philosophical mechanic’; that is to say you should really be equally offended if I perhaps exemplified by this conference.

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 69

cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

To avoid overpopulating the world with the mutuality and interdependence is the root we owe her our respect, our care, our love for
general-purpose machines, what we have of conscience: we know, without being told, helping us be a “self ” at all. Unfortunately, all
to do is control the symbolic evolution that the “other” is what makes us a “self,” that too often, this tacit knowledge is not fully alive
process. To do so, I believe that the first in us. We err; we sin.
thing we must do is redefine what we At an earlier point in the chapter
mean by an individual, get away from referred to in the introduction to this
this idea of individuals as heads.” paper, von Glasersfeld discusses how
“the individual needs the corrobora-
tion of others to establish the intersub-
Implications for ethics jective viability of ways of thinking
and acting, entails a concern for others
“We need to make parents and teachers pure, as autonomous constructors” (Glasers-
before we can make children so” (Mary Boole feld 1995, p. 127), thus, though not devel-
1972, p. 10). oping a thesis of co-emergence of
self and others as outlined in this
In recognising that self-awareness and paper, he clearly sees the interde-
self-reflection arise in “languaging,” pendence of self and others and
which is necessarily a social affair, von comes to similar conclusions to
Foerster has been lead to develop a the- those of von Foerster that con-
ory of ethics (see, for example, von Foe- structivism provides a rational
rster 1993). He notes that conscience and basis for the development of
conscious have the same roots, a point ethics, noting, however, that “it
also developed by C. S. Lewis (1967). is in the choice of goals that eth-
The essence of the argument is that we ics must manifest itself ” (ibid).
are conscious (we “know with” our- With freedom to construct
selves, L. con-scio,) precisely because comes responsibility for
we “know with” others. Awareness of one’s actions.

Notes distinct from the out-

on the cybernetics tradition to provide come of the process of
A version of this paper was presented at the conceptual foundations (von Foerster, observing, objectifying self as a “self-im-
conference on Problems of Individual Emer- Pask, Maturana), Thibault’s draws mainly age.”
gence (PIE), Amsterdam, 16–20 April 2001. from developmental linguistics and dis- 7. CT in its comprehensiveness is also tech-
1. I have written more about von Glasers- course analysis. nically and terminologically complex. For
feld’s contributions to constructivist epis- 4. Various forms of “closure” are distin- reasonably accessible introductions, see
temology elsewhere (Scott 2001). guished in the literature. The usage here Glanville (1993) and Scott (1980, 1982,
2. This metaphysical assumption about the follows that of Pask and Maturana, a sys- 1993).
status of the subject is a recurrent theme tem is organisationally closed if amongst 8. Mead here is using the word “significant
throughout von Glaserfeld’s seminal its products are those elements that are symbol” to refer to socially constructed
book. I have not had opportunity to ex- necessary for the system’s persistence (re- objects that coordinate behaviours. This is
plore how consistent are his views there production) as a system (a composite of in contrast to the more commonly held
with those expressed in his other writings, elements). view that a “symbol” is a special kind of to-
earlier or later. 5. The earliest account of this argument from ken that represents an object. For an ex-
3. Whilst writing this paper, I came across von Foerster that I am aware of is in von tended discussion of “What is a symbol?,”
Thibault’s (2004) account of self and other Foerster (1960). The reader is directed to see Scott and Shurville (in press).
emergence. As far as I can judge, his argu- von Foerster (2003) where that paper and 9. For more on power relations see Scott
ments and critiques with respect to Mead, many later ones in von Foerster’s oeuvre (2006).
Piaget and Vygotsky are very similar to can be found. 10.I have developed this argument elsewhere
those I present in this paper. However, 6. Mead in a similar way distinguishes the “I” (Scott 1997).
whereas in this paper, I draw extensively and the “Me,” the process of being a self

70 Constructivist Foundations
cognitive-psychological radical constructivism

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Boole, M. (1972) A Boolean anthology: Interpersonal perception. Tavistock: Lon- Scott, B. (1980) The cybernetics of Gordon
Selected writings of Mary Boole on math- don. Pask. Part 1. International Cybernetics
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myths of information: Technology and Seductive illusions: Von Glasersfeld and An appreciation. Invited chapter for:
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epistemological epistemic structuring of experience

Epistemology Returns to Its Roots

Herbert F. J. Müller A McGill University, Montreal (Canada) <>

A. Knowledge:
Purpose: Understanding the place of Ernst von Glasersfeld’s Radical Constructivism (RC),
and some of its implications, in the development of epistemology. Design: Characteriza- Two options in
tion of two main options for the content of “knowledge” (without and with belief in mind- occidental thought
independent structures), sketch of their history in occidental thought; comparison of their
properties concerning subjectivity, objectivity, second-order cybernetics, reliability of Epistemology has as main purposes to
mental tools, and the needs and mechanisms for certainty and overall structures. develop and strengthen our stance (epi-
Results: Awareness that we structure mental working tools can, as RC suggests, replace histanai = stand above; under-stand = stand
belief in mind-independent reality, and this change dissolves the conceptual problem of below; ver-stehen = stand in front of); and to
metaphysics-ontology, but also eliminates the certainty expected from it, which raises the get a handle or grip (com-prehend, grasp,
possibility of relativism.Working-concepts cannot be deconstructed because they imply can; be-greifen, er-kennen, können). Of and
no ontological claims. Subject(s) are necessarily included in all knowledge (which does not on what? There are two main possibilities for
mean solipsism): because subjective experience encompasses all mental tools, including this largely language-determined functional
those of objectivity and mathematics, while in contrast the subject itself cannot become layer of “knowledge,” which influences per-
an objective system. Practical reliability of mental tools differs from subjective certainty, ception and action in addition to the genetic-
which requires an ontological leap of faith to positive beliefs: for specific tools including instinctual layer:
automata, and for positive holistic structures. However, in agreement with the construc- (i) The constructivist option of using
tivist view, holistic views can instead have an unstructured center, with reliability = viability, working-entities (working-structures),2 in
which prevents relativism. In sum, belief in mid-independent reality is needed for certainty principle ad-hoc and temporary, structured
if desired; for all other purposes constructivism is more helpful. within otherwise not-structured experience
Implications:The change in view suggested by von Glasersfeld’s work is of relevance for (of mind-and-world) and invested with
a number of fields of study with conceptual problems (such as the mind-brain relation). trust; and
However, due to their generality, the implications will need evaluation in specific instances. (ii) the traditional metaphysical-ontolog-
The question of certainty needs attention for practical reasons. ical option of postulating pre-structured,
Key Words: Subject-inclusiveness, cybernetics, back-up function. persistent, and usually also mind-indepen-
dent, and indeed mind-exclusive, reality
(MIR) and truth.
I became aware of epistemological Radical
Introduction Constructivism (RC) in 1999, while searching The metaphysics puzzle
to access the mind–brain relation puzzle, and Many people prefer the pre-structured option
Ernst von Glasersfeld (2005, p. 10) wants to was glad to find authors who wanted an episte- (ii), in the belief that it provides an outside
go to the roots of epistemology, of “the prob- mology without traditional metaphysics, which source of certainty; however, it implies tran-
lems of knowledge and knowing” (Glasersfeld coincided with my need. They have made this scending one’s experience to an imagined
1995, p. 1), by examining the subjects’ ele- effort a central feature of their work. As von Gla- mind-independent source. This is a form of
mentary operations for structuring experi- sersfeld has pointed out, much of what one can wishful thinking: before it can provide cer-
ence. He replaces the ontology of Western say about these matters has been said before – it tainty, one must first postulate the MIR-
philosophy by a “functional fit” (or “viabil- may now be a question of clarifying one’s think- source, and then certify it as real or true by a
ity”) of concepts. He sees his work as indebted ing, of seeing the wood for the trees. leap of faith. In the words of Heinz von Foer-
to that of von Uexküll, Piaget (Glasersfeld Here I want to contribute (from my point of ster: “Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that
1995, Ch. 3), Bridgman, Ceccato, von Foer- view1) to the understanding of von Glasers- observing can be done without him. Involv-
ster, Maturana, Varela, and others; it is also in feld’s work, and constructivism in general, in ing objectivity is abrogating responsibility –
accordance with earlier studies, for instance the context of the development of epistemol- hence its popularity.” (Glasersfeld 1995,
by Vico, Berkeley, Bentham, the critical and ogy. My aim is not to repeat his historical sur- p. 149) It implies an inversion of thinking,1 in
posthumous work of Kant (1936; Glasersfeld veys (such as Glasersfeld 1995, Ch. 2), but to which agency, including goal-setting, is dis-
1985a, pp. 18ff; 1991, [5]; 1995). As Riegler evaluate his work, and some of what I think is placed from the subject onto postulated
(2005) points out, there is a plurality of con- implied in it, within this development, elabo- external entities, a circular procedure which
structivisms with a common basis; the field is rating on aspects which have struck me as actually reduces option (ii) to option (i). But
developing and presents conceptual and prac- important. This is my personal bias; I have also view (ii) is commonly maintained by exclud-
tical opportunities and challenges. included a few of my own ideas for discussion. ing the circularity from awareness, and often

72 Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3
epistemological epistemic structuring of experience

also the outward leap of faith. This has a long

Pre-Socratic thinkers did not share a com-
mon opinion on the question of whether real-
ity needs our structuring or is found pre-
structured (see also Glasersfeld 1985a,
pp. 24ff; 1995, Ch. 2). A long-term commit-
ment to option (ii) was the result of the meta-
physical-ontological teachings of Plato and
Aristotle of pre-existing but inaccessible truth
and reality. This required an ontological leap-
of-faith, and became a leading theme of occi-
dental thought, transmitted from the Greeks
to Arabic, scholastic-theistic, and later to nat-
uralistic epistemology. It helped to achieve
stability and collective unity of structured
thinking, secured by faith in a postulated
mind-external certainty, for about 1500
years. The price was incomprehensibility,
particularly when there was an attempt to
include the central subjective and holistic
aspects of mind (cf. Glasersfeld 1991, [5];
2001, [41]; and part J of this paper). The pos-
tulated MIR structures get in the way of criti-
cal thinking.
Still, modern science originated from Ernst von Glasersfeld at the Douglas-McGill Symposium on “Mind-Construction-Brain”, organized
here; but the leap-of-faith procedure was by the author, Herbert Müller, on 28 September 2001 at Douglas Hospital in Montreal (Canada).
largely maintained, and merely transferred (Photo by Douglas Hospital).
from MIR-God to MIR-Nature. Correction
was therefore difficult even after science
became independent of theism, and relapses The obstructive nature of MIR-belief is construction of the concept of plural (the
into some type of MIR-belief resulted almost illustrated by the fact that even those very “awareness of having recognized [an item]
invariably, including by those who set out bright people who used it as the basis of their more than once”; Glasersfeld 1985b [19]ff;
explicitly to abandon metaphysics (cf. Gla- thinking (and implied it to be the general 1995, pp. 93f).
sersfeld 1995, pp. 25ff). The ontological sub- basis of thought) were stymied by their wish RC replaces metaphysics-ontology by
ject-object split persisted, because it was not to exclude the subject in studies that included “viability” of mind-and-world structures (a
clearly changed into a pragmatic one, and the mind. At the present late stage of the revi- “tremendous shock for believers in represen-
thus the desire for MI-certainty (ii) contin- sion, we are trying to re-gain access to the tation”; Glasersfeld 1995, p. 14). This means
ued (cf. Glasersfeld 1991, [16]). original structuring process (i) within experi- being aware of the subject-inclusive opera-
Post-Cartesian (enlightenment) episte- ence, and to make it work reliably when con- tional origin of concepts, and reflects the
mologies were largely motivated as efforts to fronting uncertainty and ambiguity. needs of various scientific and practical disci-
overcome such obstacles to the correction, plines (such as linguistics, mathematics, edu-
but the attempts remained incomplete,4 and cation); it gives RC a broader than purely
some thinkers missed even that incomplete B. Radical philosophical base. Constructivism is “a
change. The so-called “Copernican Revolu- method for knowing” (Glasersfeld 1995,
tion” of Kant (who showed that the subject’s
constructivism p. 22); it requires a continuous effort of struc-
activity is needed for objective reality) was Von Glasersfeld’s work comes in at this point. turing and testing. Constructivism means
ignored or denied by many realists. Attempts He proposes replacing the search for postu- more responsibility (Glasersfeld 1985a, p. 27;
were often made (e.g., by logical positivists) lated already-structured MIR-entities (ii) by 1991, [37]), both individual and collective. It
to eliminate metaphysics, for instance by showing that structures are results of human means creating working-structures as
declaring metaphysical questions to be mean- activity (i). This change has re-opened the needed; MIR-assumptions are redundant.
ingless, or pseudo-problems. But this missed way for studies of basic structures. “Re-pre- An epistemological view cannot be the
the point that something similar is needed for sentations” point not to mind-independent result of empirical findings, the latter already
thinking, as Kant had observed. Everyone entities but to structures previously formed pre-suppose an opinion on where the struc-
uses metaphysics-ontology. within experience. A typical example is the tures in experience come from. “[T]he theory

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 73

epistemological epistemic structuring of experience

of knowing does not depend on […] more or from that of von Foerster (1992), and von from subjects’ operations: however, he still
less empirical findings. […] It is based on the Foerster and von Glasersfeld (1999), who talked about external nature, though he had
simple realization that, as our thinking, our appear to equate construction with invention. “little to say about it,” and added “what this
conceptualizing, and our language are devel- The subject–object and subject–other dis- means we leave to the metaphysician to
oped from and in the domain of our experi- tinctions become structured too during decide.” von Glasersfeld wrote that he is
ence, we have no way of incorporating any- development (Jean Piaget; see Glasersfeld agnostic about a mind-external reality (1991
thing that lies beyond this domain” 1991, [27]ff, 1995, Ch.3). Structures, and the abstract, [17]ff; 1995; etc.). It may be more
(Glasersfeld 2005, p. 11). “We can, of course, distinctions between them, originate in consistent, I want to suggest, to define reality-
use metaphors to grope beyond our limits, reflection, a pause in experience (Wilhelm structures (ontology-metaphysics) in princi-
but as these metaphors are not redeemable in von Humboldt; Piaget; von Glasersfeld (2001, ple as ad-hoc working-tools only, even if they
the experiential domain to which we have [25–36]). are used on a permanent basis (Note 1 and
access, they can never shed their status of ‘as part C, above). Like words, numbers, trian-
if ’” (Glasersfeld 2001, [16]). Deconstruction-proofing, and back- gles, and dimensions, they are there because
RC concerns fundamental aspects of epis- up versus MIR-fallback we need and structure, posit, and use them:
temology; it is not the same as “social con- Working-structures cannot be deconstructed that solves the puzzle. Assumption of things-
struction,” although both have points in com- ontologically (in the sense of Heidegger and in-themselves that cannot be proved or dis-
mon (Glasersfeld 1995, p. 141). Most Derrida) because they claim no ontic (pre- proved is redundant.
concepts are socially shared, and dealing with structured) base.
social questions pre-supposes an epistemo- This enables the constructivist method to
logical point of view. back up type (ii) views, which can be de-con- D.The encompassing:
structed (for instance by showing that the
notion of fictitious inaccessible MIRs is not
Subject-inclusiveness is
C. Working needed for them, since they are extrapolated fundamental
from mental tools). This back-up function
metaphysics-ontology (that is, the working-structure is used to The inclusion of subjective experience in all
To address the metaphysics difficulty more replace the abandoned MIR-structure) might knowledge is a central aspect of constructiv-
directly, one can go a step further by general- be a useful conceptual tool, for instance in sci- ism (but does not imply solipsism = exclu-
izing from the well-accepted scientific entific theory-building. sive subjectivity without objectivity). “All
method of creating working-hypotheses: to Since (ii) cannot back up (i), the relation cognitive activity occurs within the experi-
“operational” or “working-” (or “as-if ”-) between (i) and (ii) is asymmetrical. While ence of goal-directed consciousness” (Gla-
metaphysics-ontology (working-reality and - backing-up or replacing (ii) by (i) serves con- sersfeld 1985a, p. 31; but in principle at least
truth). Re-interpreting inaccessible type (ii) ceptual clarification, a move from (i) to (ii) is one needs to include all aspects of experi-
mind-independent metaphysics-ontology as a fall-back – by default and/or by design – ence; see below). There is no way of getting
a type (i) working-tool gives it a status like from responsible agency onto assumed mind- out of subjectivity, either individually or col-
that of the language- and number-tools; the independent certainty provided by postu- lectively: the subject is an intrinsic compo-
metaphysics puzzle dissolves. But the cer- lated guarantors. nent of all mental structures, such as con-
tainty expected from type (ii) ontology-meta- The number of possible practical action cepts and theories. This is, in my
physics dissolves as well (cf. parts G and H patterns is increased in working-ontology: understanding, a defining aspect of con-
below). they are created as needed rather than deter- structivism, and needs to be kept at the cen-
The operational or working-structures, mined by fixed dogmata that pre-determine ter of efforts to deal with it.
including theories, do not exist outside struc- and restrict the choice. In theories that exclude the mind (such as
turing and (individual and collective) use, type (ii) exclusive objectivity) the subject(s)
and thus remain in principle within reach and Working-science are likely to re-surface at some point. Exam-
comprehensible. They imply no (“ontic”) MIR-science (type (ii)) can be transformed to ples are the ad-hoc addition of “conscious-
claims of mind-independent validity, and working- (or as-if-)MIR-science (type (i)). ness” in particle physics, or the “anthropic
serve either circumscribed tasks, or else holis- Science neither needs, nor can it produce, tra- principle” in cosmology. But subject(s) must
tic purposes such as unity and communality ditional metaphysics-ontology. “Science is the be included from the outset. If they are
of experience. They can compete with each collection of recipes and procedures that added to a type (ii) view at a later time, as in
other, but are mutually exclusive only in an always work […] Our faith [in it] rests these instances, a return to a type (i) view is
operational sense. entirely on the certainty of reproducing or needed in order to deal with an aura of arti-
All reality needs structuring (deliberate or seeing again a certain phenomenon by means ficiality and an ontological subject–object
not), and some of it requires inventing: art, of certain well-defined acts” (Paul Valéry, split.
language, or self-image need our invention; quoted by von Glasersfeld 1995, p. 117). This subject-aspect of experience too has
hurricanes and toothaches are structured but The physicist Percy Bridgman proposed had a historical development in epistemol-
not invented by humans; this opinion differs (1927), like Piaget, that all concepts result ogy: in phenomenology and related efforts.

74 Constructivist Foundations
epistemological epistemic structuring of experience

Constructivist development beyond need consideration in the discussion of “sec- F. Cybernetics,

phenomenology ond-order cybernetics” (below).
Subject-inclusiveness is a theme (“existential- The mind-brain question cannot be subjectivity, and
ism”) of phenomenology since Kierkegaard approached by MIR-views, because mind objectivity
(1843/2005). He rejected claims of mind- cannot be made into an object; as von Gla-
independent pre-structured truth and reality sersfeld puts it (2001, [41]): “In order to do As a general principle, MIR-objectivity
as not relevant for individual experience – that [understand consciousness objectively], becomes as-if-MIR-objectivity in construc-
Hegel’s (1807/1949) notion of the absolute I would have to step out of [consciousness], tivism. But there are some conceptual diffi-
spirit as well as science’s claim of the universal and at the same time remain conscious, in culties when goal-directedness is studied,
validity of exclusive MIR-objectivity. order to face my own consciousness.” Brain which can be viewed objectively as well as
Nietzsche (1888) wrote that the idols of MIR- function studies take place within the developed subjectively. This question comes
metaphysics were vanishing (“Götzen-Däm- encompassing mind but cannot in turn reach up in second-order cybernetics, which is
merung”). Jaspers emphasized that experi- the mind. This does not mean that objective endorsed by a number of constructivists.
ence is “encompassing” (“the encompassing studies have no value, quite the opposite; but The information-mechanisms of von Foe-
in which we are and which we are ourselves”; it means that subjective experience is pri- rster, Maturana, and others support the con-
1991, p. 39). On the other hand, existential- mary. structivist view, but do not describe mind;
ism without specialization can amount to The relation of objective studies (for they are mental structures within mind, like
fuzzy generalities;5 also, phenomenologists instance of brain function, or of quantum all theories. Von Foerster’s “Principle of
have often suffered MIR-relapses.4 physics) to subjective experience (conscious- Undifferentiated Encoding” (derived from
Constructivism is, inter alia, a further ness, observer, mind) is asymptotic, not one work by the 19th century physiologist J.
development of phenomenology, mainly in of identity (notions like “the embodied Müller on “nerve physics” and “specific sense
two respects. Firstly, it examines how struc- mind” or “the mind-brain” attempt to render energy”; Glasersfeld 1995, p. 115; Riegler
tures (including goal-structures) are created the mind objective and thus imply a misun- 2005) says that neural activity encodes quan-
within experience; they are not (as phenome- derstanding of this relationship). Objective titative information, not external reality. This
nologists implied) discovered – there or else- functions can approach but not reach subjec- is a negative statement about mental struc-
where – in ready-made form. Secondly, it can tivity, and in contrast to geometry, the differ- tures, which still have to be created by a sub-
accommodate objective studies: theories and ence cannot be neglected without eliminat- ject. In positive terms: during dreaming,
objective methods develop within experience ing ourselves, as happens in MIR-views. mental structures, including their meanings,
as working- (or as-if-) MIR; this leads to a Words can become MIR-objects (for instance are activated centrally rather than by periph-
joint subjective-objective (working) view.3 as elements of grammar and syntax, in eral input (Ceccato, quoted by von Glasers-
With its back-up ability (part C, above) con- printed form, etc.), and word-concepts too, feld 1995 pp.97–98); the same applies for free
structivism can combine both methods. but the ongoing experience which they associations, and pathological functions such
In principle, all other aspects of experi- express cannot. as hallucinations.
ence (qualia, feeling and emotions, others, To accommodate experience, scientists
world, universe, the whole, the unstructured must acknowledge that all working-struc- Systems in cybernetics and physics
center) must also be included in discussions tures (and the distinctions between them) The objective study of goal-directedness is the
of experience, even when they are difficult to happen within mind or experience; keeping topic of cybernetics, the work of Norbert
communicate, or at present not conscious; experience at the center, without solipsism. Wiener in physics, and of Heinz von Foerster
they can become conscious experience. When maintaining this awareness, one can in psycho-physiology, and their collabora-
safely alternate between working-objectivity, tors. Von Glasersfeld remarks (1995, p. 148)
working-idealism, working-subjectivity, etc. that cybernetics understands reality as an
E. The subject is not The inverted thinking1 of MIR-belief is a interaction between observer and observed.
typically human problem. Animals too struc- “Cybernetics of cybernetics” (or second-
observable ture their own worlds (see Horvath 1997), but order cybernetics), wants to introduce the
The subjective aspect of experience (or con- the human capacity for distancing (reflec- subject (mind) as an autonomous agent-sys-
sciousness) has “to remain empirically tion) is greater, in part related to language tem into cybernetics of biological systems (cf.
inscrutable”; it cannot become objective use, i.e., the large-scale association of specific Umpleby 1991, 2002). This is clearly an
because “the reflecting self […] becomes the communicable sounds to images (Glasersfeld important aim, but its conceptual aspect pre-
governor and cannot contemplate itself from 1995, Ch. 7; a classical example is Archi- sents difficulties that need discussion.
the outside” as an object (Glasersfeld 2001, medes, who was so distant from events I as a subject can observe an observing sys-
[32]). There is no subject in exclusively- around him that he did not notice that a tem as an object. But what I observe is not the
objective studies. The unobservability of the Roman soldier was going to kill him while he subjective experience of the (observed)
subject is a fundamental fact which is in prin- reflected on geometric problems). observing system, whether that refers to an
ciple recognized in constructivism, but usu- The aim of the objective method is to animal, another person, or even to myself in
ally neglected in MIR-views. This point will eliminate observer-bias, not the observer. the case where I can study my brain function

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 75

epistemological epistemic structuring of experience

as needed while (or after) I have various sub- the nuts and bolts of mental function, I will uted, of operations carried out, and of results
jective experiences.7 (In contrast there are briefly discuss a few of them here, following they produced.”
many “autonomous” biological systems, von Glasersfeld’s procedures, with emphasis This analysis shows the operational origin
including bee-hives and ant-colonies, that on the question of their reliability. of arithmetic procedures and other algo-
can be objectively studied but do not imply rithms, and consequent reliabilities that one
“subjectivity” or “consciousness” in the sense Regularities, laws, tends to take for granted; it also epitomizes
of the present discussion.) and the method of reason the RC-method. The “hypothetical trick” can
One may compare these efforts with the Outside of religion and politics, certainty be taken as a prototype of type (ii) MIR-pos-
earlier one of John von Neumann (cf. Baggott refers mostly to natural laws (“regularities” tulates and beliefs, as well as of their type (i)
2004, p. 243), who found that to understand in nature), which we experience and struc- “working” equivalents.
the statistical nature of quantum-mechanics ture, in the same way as object-constancy in
(QM) he had to re-introduce the subject into subject-inclusive operations (Glasersfeld Geometric tools
QM, in terms of a “system III” (observer or 1985a, pp. 31ff; Glasersfeld 1995, p. 128). Von Glasersfeld (2006, pp. 66–67) also offers
“consciousness”) in addition to system I, the Natural laws are reliable, not dependent on an operational basis for geometric concepts
object under study, and system II, the measur- MIR-theistic beliefs, and are commonly such as point (“the center of attention”), line
ing device. But system III is not identical with, believed to result from type (ii) MIR. But it (“drawing”), or plane (“moving a line side-
nor a part of, system II, and he concluded that turns out that they can be modified when ways”).
“the probability wave collapses when it inter- needed; this shows them to be type (i) as-if- Like numbers, the geometric entities are
acts with a consciousness.” An opaque con- MIR laws. not found; they are human mind-and-world
clusion of this type may follow if one starts After abandoning MIR-ontology, it working-tools structured and used for deal-
from naturalistic MIR-belief (that exclusive remains that “only reason can protect man ing with experience, and for stabilization.
objectivity describes “the reality”); but since it from fanaticism and superstition” (Kant). The mentioned reasoning for “point” in par-
is not comprehensible, it has not made QM Reason still means clarification of thinking, ticular is of the mental-operation type and
understandable. The word “consciousness” sorting out helpful from unhelpful mental does not even involve motor action; in theory
not withstanding, the “system III” is likely to structures. The reasoning method “de-con- a point “has zero dimensions.” They are ele-
be understood in MIR-terms, because sys- structs” non-viable structures and makes us ments of the gestalt-operation in geometry.
tems are objects of thinking. The difficulties look for better ones. – As von Glasersfeld has (However, if one physically draws a point, a
persist in that field (quite “officially” in mentioned, Kant himself came close to a line, or a plane, the result always has proper-
expressions like “quantum weirdness” – type (i) view in his opus postumum. Related ties that in principle require treatment as
uncertainty, wave-particle duality, to this question is von Glasersfeld’s work on three-dimensional objects, though the addi-
Schrödinger’s cat, etc. – ; cf. for instance Lind- the operational analysis of the basic steps in tional ones are usually “neglected”; Glasers-
ley 1996; constructivists might counter that mathematics and abstraction. feld 1995, p. 185; drawings are imperfect,
the weird aspect is the MIR-view; see also the though still effective, means to communicate
section on gestalt-tools, below). Arithmetic tools mental structures, which are implied to be
The same conceptual difficulty emerges in In a recently “revisited” study, von Glasers- the same for all.)
second-order cybernetics and might interfere feld (1995, Ch. 5, Ch. 9; 2006) discussed the But then, how real are points, or lines?
with its acceptance. Experience is primary, operational foundations of structures in They are in the mind, like all mathematical
theories and observations occur within it. arithmetic. After structuring the concept of structures (cf. Lakoff & Núñez 2000); objec-
The problem is the incomprehensibility of “plural” (see part B, above), a simple arith- tive aspects are their working derivatives that
MIR-belief (objectivity) itself, which von metical statement like 3 + 4 = 7 can be can for many purposes be handled as-if they
Neumann retained because he did not explic- “unpacked” into the operations of counting were MIR units. The visual system has objec-
itly abandon it, and which is also implied in two collections of items. Then by coordinat- tive mechanisms to detect objective points,
studies of cybernetic systems. ing a number-word sequence with them, and lines, and edges.8 They are the physiological
considering the two collections as one, one basis for the corresponding mind-and-
arrives at the same result every time. world-tools of the structuring subject, ele-
G. Reliability of The mathematical reliability is based on ments of gestalt-formations. With points and
what von Glasersfeld calls (2006, p. 68) a lines, one can draw a tree, a house, or a
mental tools “hypothetical trick,” a non-mathematical human face; but these objects are not made of
With the change from type (ii) to type (i) procedure that is “abstracted.” “The cer- points or lines, nor of gestalt entities; even
epistemology, the questions of reliability and tainty of the results […] springs on the one less of the underlying physiology. Extrapolat-
certainty become prominent, since the pos- hand from the fact that one operates in a ing from here, one can draw triangles, circles,
tulated external guarantor dissolves. Ernst hypothetical mode and therefore obliges cubes, asymptotes, etc., tools for exploratory
von Glasersfeld has presented descriptions oneself not to question what one has hypoth- tasks in structuring and handling visual
of how some mental tools are created, and of esized; and on the other hand, on implicit experience, together with other visual tools
their properties. Since mental structures are faith in one’s memory of meanings attrib- such as color, or tactile ones such as solidity,

76 Constructivist Foundations
epistemological epistemic structuring of experience

etc. The tools are elements of subject-inclu- one, with identical results if procedural mis- I. Automata and
sive working-reality, just as numbers or takes are avoided. But, as von Glasersfeld has
working-metaphysics (and indeed all mind- shown (see above), in mathematics too there inversion of agency
and-world structures) are. is a difference between reliability of procedure The use of automata is closely related to the
and certainty of faith. Certainties are derived leap of faith to an MIR-view.
Gestalt-tools and MIR-reference from posited and certified (MIR-) structures Von Glasersfeld quotes Gottlob Frege
Our notion of the world is predominantly that are no longer scrutinized and may even (who triggered the development of analytic
visual. Visual gestalt formations have a qual- be out of awareness. That can facilitate life philosophy) on mathematical abstractions
ity of permanence and definition that is lack- much, at variable risk. (2006, p. 65): “the things that we number
ing in probabilistic reliability. With the One posits an ad-hoc working-hypothesis must be distinguishable, whereas the
gestalt-tools we can package experience into (or accepts an intuition, revelation or, most [abstract] units of arithmetic are not.”
items suitable for handling and communica- commonly, an authority’s opinion or com- Since the subject is omitted, this statement
tion. When words are attached to them, they mand at face value), certifies it as reliable (“are not”) omits the operational aspect.
can become metaphysical entities, because (true, real) by leap of faith, and/or by aban- Frege appears to have seen the result of “abs-
words, as communication tools, have a built- doning critical thinking, and in turn derives tracting” (= “taking away” from the events
in supra-individual aspect: the word-gestalt certainty from the certified – and often exter- that gave rise to it) as pre-structured, not
concepts lend themselves to a mis-interpreta- nalized – structure. The certainty procedure operational. It would then not only be extrap-
tion of universality and absoluteness, if involves forgetting and/or excluding from olated from a specific procedure and general-
desired. In that way, type (i) statistical reli- awareness (1) the circularity of the operation, ized (a “placeholder” with some flexibility of
ability can give way to a leap to type (ii) cer- (2) the MI-step, and often also (3) the leap- concept-images, Glasersfeld 1995, pp. 91ff),
tainty of MIR-knowledge. The Pythagoreans of-faith. These steps mark the difference but also be mind-independently automated,
not withstanding, numbers are less likely between reliability of procedures and cer- taken away from the subject’s activity.
than gestalt-formations to be considered tainty. If the acts of counting are considered one
identical to or referring to a fictitious MIR- Knowledge is probabilistic except for such at a time, the arithmetic units are not identi-
world. leaps of faith; numbers can sometimes make cal. Each can be made distinguishable by pay-
But evidently the reliability of gestalt- the probability more precise. In contrast, cer- ing attention to it, but they are usually treated
tools is limited: on TV a forward moving car tified structures are the only available source as identical. The operational question is: how
may show its wheels turning backward. How- of persistent certainty, including in mathe- much can and should we distinguish? Treat-
ever, we see what we know (“it isn’t so”), and matics. They are results of human postulates, ing numbers and numerical relations as iden-
that corrects the problem. Gestalt-tools are leaps of faith, circular reasoning, and forget- tical, as mind-independent and trustworthy
also used in trying to interpret the double-slit ting. In some instances, the name of the trick algorithms or automata, can be our (the sub-
experiment of QM (cf. Baggott 2004; Lindley ought to be self-deception. The constructiv- jects”) view, deliberately or by default. Com-
1996). One may ask whether macroscopic ist insight undoes the forgetting; thereafter puters are used on that basis: the subject s’ act
gestalt-notions such as “corpuscle” and certainty retains awareness of its risk (i.e., is delegated to trusted automata (Glasersfeld
“wave” are valid (viable) here (and mutually doubt). 2006, note 15). The automation can have
exclusive). Physicists tell us that QM has reli- For certainty, type (ii) knowledge (leap to ramifications that, even in mathematics, are
able mathematical procedures, but is difficult MIR-belief) is effective, but it may interfere at first unexpected, such as infinity, imaginary
or impossible “to understand” (presumably with critical thinking; for all other purposes numbers, or negative probabilities. But the
in visual gestalt terms). In using a visual type (i) knowledge (such as constructivism) subject-agent remains, in principle, a constit-
image of reality, one needs to remain aware of is more helpful. uent part of the process (Glasersfeld 1995,
the limitations of visual gestalt tools. The rejection of MIR-belief may evoke a pp. 96ff).
fear of relativism – that reality and truth Implied (mind-independent) automatism
depend on arbitrary opinions. But working- of logical-mathematical symbols, with
H. Probabilistic structures cannot remain arbitrary, since implied completeness-in-themselves, seems
they can be maintained only if they are viable. to be a feature of analytic philosophy in its
reliability versus leaps of Social structures can be more varied, but pursuit of truth. This aspect disappears when
faith to certainty, and depend on consensus, such as concerning it is acknowledged that the mind encom-
expected effectiveness. For instance, United passes these tool-structures; then the com-
the question of Nations decisions may at times be inade- pleteness is in the mind, but its center cannot
relativism quate, but they are probably not arbitrary; be structured (see part J, below).
another example is the confidentiality of pro- Delegation of responsibility to automata of
The procedures are more reliable for counting fessionals toward their clients, an expectation various kinds (including airplanes, the postal
than elsewhere: the operations of arithmetic and standard that is documented in rules of service, governments, but also to some we
are simple (“digital,” even if you do not count conduct, but does not have to imply MIR- have not invented, like the functions of our
on your fingers) and can be repeated by any- belief. own bodies) is inevitable: because we have no

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 77

epistemological epistemic structuring of experience

choice, for instance, and/or because our atten- a negative center. Non-theistic (and non- In this way, constructivism can offer a
tion has limits. But this trust and inversion of positive) stability practices are used success- complete view (of “life,” of “reality”).
agency may become counter-productive if the fully in some cultures, with the help of med- Many conceptual aspects of constructivism
automata fail or develop unexpected func- itation. They have an unstructured (nega- (some of which have been briefly discussed in
tions and place us in the position of a sorcerer’s tive) center-point such as nirvana (which is this paper) will need further scrutiny. Exam-
apprentice, who tries to re-gain control. free of paradoxes). Seen from there, positive ples are, among others, the relation of struc-
In view of the ever-increasing amount of theistic structures appear as imperfect pre- turing to inventing; of constructivism and
objective (actually how-to) information, it is liminary tools, a temporary convenience on phenomenology to cybernetics; the relevance
perhaps the most difficult aspect of the con- the way to the goal of dealing more directly of constructivism for science and teaching; the
structivist view to remain aware of the pri- with the unstructured center (cf. Percheron operational basis of basic concepts; reliability
macy of ongoing (subjective) experience. In 1958, pp. 38–40). of mental tools versus certainty by circular rea-
practice we can delegate agency (and respon- The reliable rational logical (language) soning plus forgetting where it comes from;
sibility) on a temporary (or as-if) basis, but and mathematical (counting) methods on the differences between “Anglo-American”
simultaneously acknowledge that in principle the other hand cannot offer the overall and “Continental” opinions on the need to
we remain responsible throughout.9 coherence of a holistic view with inclusion of include ongoing experience; agnosticism ver-
subjective experience, nor can the objective sus redundancy of ontology; the back-up
method (which usually implies the gestalt = function of constructivism. One would, of
J. Holistic structures reality view) do this. The ex-positivist Paul course, also want to consider the work of other
Feyerabend wrote (1999, pp. 32–33) “[i]f constructivists, and of non-constructivists, in
Belief systems are also used for certainty by discourse is defined as a sequence of clear theory formation. These are important –
trying to structure experience as a whole, with and distinct propositions […] then dis- though not easy – questions; but dealing with
the help of postulated overall structures. course has a very short breath indeed, […] If them could, besides increasing responsibility,
Indeed, if the whole is not included in some the history of thought depended on a dis- also make life more interesting.
way (at least in principle) the view is incom- course of this kind, then it would consist of
plete. an ocean of irrationality interrupted, briefly, ABOUT THE AUTHOR
by mutually incommensurable islands of
Mystery, rationalism, sense.” But just that is the start-point of con- Herbert F. J. Müller, born 1924 in Cologne,
and the unstructured center structivism: we do not try to find sense studied medicine at the University of
Holistic structures include the subjective cen- ready-made, we have to make sense within Cologne (Dr. med., 1951). Medical intern-
ter of ongoing experience, which cannot the unstructured.10 ship and postgraduate training (psychiatry,
become structured; that would require an neurology, electroencephalography) in
impossible objectivity and packaging of sub- New Jersey, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Düs-
jective experience. Positive holistic structures K. Conclusion: seldorf, and at McGill University in Montreal
are consequently inevitably paradoxical or (Associate Prof. of Psychiatry). Now retired
mystical, but may be adopted by means of
Constructivism in the from clinical work at Douglas Hospital,
absolute belief, in order to obtain overall history of epistemology Montreal. – Studying the mind-brain rela-
meaning and stability via a leap of faith tion, it became clear to me in 1994 that to
(“credo quia absurdum,” Tertullian). The par- Constructivism restores to epistemology the access this question the notion of pre-struc-
adoxes may, however, prevent some people unstructured origin of thinking, and the sub- tured mind-independent reality must be
from accepting theism and other positive ject(s) as agent(s) of all structure-formation abandoned. As this requires a more general
holistic beliefs. But constructivism can and -use. The pre-structured reality view is review of concept use and epistemological
accommodate holism, and may offer a way to then no longer an end-point for epistemology questions, I started editing the Karl Jaspers
dissolve the paradoxes. (Whitehead had suggested that all occidental Forum in 1997. In 1999 I
For one, constructivism can back up posi- philosophy is a footnote to Plato), instead it became aware of radical constructivism
tive holistic structures (which are put on has been a long-term but nevertheless tempo- (chiefly the work of Ernst von Glasersfeld),
hold). This consideration does not make mys- rary means for obtaining certainty from pos- which has many features in common with
ticism rational (cf. Glasersfeld 1995 pp. 24ff), tulated (mostly mind-external) authorities: my present work. A symposium on the
and does not justify irrational behaviour, but the viability concept of Ernst von Glasers- mind-brain relation, in which von Glasers-
it provides a rational understanding of the feld’s Radical Constructivism is a step beyond feld participated, took place at the Douglas
presence and irrational function of mysti- this stage. Rather than maintaining MIR- Hospital (McGill University) in September
cism. Namely, that the irrationality is a conse- belief for certainty, it helps to de-construct 2001. My present work concerns the con-
quence of the unstructured origin within ontology; one can then use viable experience- ceptual basis of this point of view – which I
which all rational thinking takes place. structures and achieve stability of stance and label “structuring with zero-derivation” or
And secondly, holism and the objective reliability of grasp by operational (and co- “zero-reference” – and its relation to other
method can both be tools in experience with operational) means. areas.

78 Constructivist Foundations
epistemological epistemic structuring of experience

Notes ing up the idea of absolute validity of has been conducted on the erroneous as-
noumena; and furthermore that these sumption that vision is a passive event in
1. A recent description of my position of noumena can be known. the brain.
zero-derivation (0-D) of mind-and-world 5. The mathematician Kurt Reidemeister 9. This can lead to a correction procedure for
structures and of the inversion of thinking (1954) saw existentialism as non-objective inverted thinking. As one example of
(i.e., relegation of agency to outside the (“unsachlich”), avoiding obligations many: when it is suggested that the mind
subject) can be found in Müller (2005). As (“unverbindlich”), and (p.24) including (subjective experience) has to originate in
mentioned in various contexts in the mystical thinking. These features result a theory, it is readily shown that this is im-
present paper, it differs in some respects from dealing with subjectivity, which can- possible because theories originate in the
from von Glasersfeld’s opinion, and I not become objective. But he criticized the mind, and not vice versa.
hope this can be understood as a contribu- phenomenologists without mentioning 10.Holistic structures (of instrumental “rea-
tion to discussion rather than criticism. the views of his fellow-mathematician and son”) cannot without self-contradiction
2. I employ the term “entity” or “structure” phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, who bridge irrationality, which is an essential
here as a general expression for mental advocated a view of essences (“Wesens- aspect of theism (“credo quia absur-
tools, for instance concepts, theories, but Schau”). dum”). The Pope has recently (2006)
also more basic ones such as words, num- 6. A switch to working-ontology helps to ad- pleaded for a connection between faith
bers, gestalt-formations, objects, and in- dress the mind-brain relation question: and reason, mainly by referring to the in-
cluding qualia as well. knowledge of brain activity develops with- fluence of the Hellenistic “logos” on the
3. In case they are understood as working in the mind, not vice versa (see my Target Gospel according to St. John (“In princip-
structures, the two possibilities interact Article 45 in the Karl Jaspers Forum http:/ io erat verbum, et verbum erat apud
and complement each other. – Similar is / Deum, et Deus erat verbum”, Nestle &
the Chinese distinction (3rd century BC) 7. Let us say that in some years from now it Aland 1963). He hoped for a widening of
between (i) the dark weak force (Yin), and will be possible for you to undergo a brain the concept of scientific reason, so as to in-
(ii) the bright strong force (Yang), and scan which simultaneously measures clude faith. But he did not explain how to
their interaction. blood flow, electrical and chemical neu- do that; and the Vatican has in the past
4. Empiricists, positivists, and realists have ronal activity, and informational aspects emphasized that, to believe in God, an
tended to continue using traditional type of brain activity. If that gives a reasonably “ontological leap of faith” is required. The
(ii) metaphysics-ontology (“every idea is complete assessment of what your brain two requirements (coherent reason and
the idea of a being,” wrote Hume – proba- does (the functions of many interacting ontological leap of faith) are not mutually
bly a mind-independent being); but most brain systems in fact) while you are in var- compatible. – This type of difficulty is not
also insisted that they did not use meta- ious subjective activities (experiences) of confined to theisms; it supervenes also in
physics, because it had “no meaning.” perceiving, thinking, feeling, remember- MIR-naturalistic views which are extend-
Kant claimed that things-in-themselves ing, meditating, alertness, drowsiness, ed to holisms, such as when the block-uni-
are “necessary for reason,” not experi- etc., is any of this, or some mathematical verse is said to render free will impossible
enced (as noumena). Phenomenologists expression of a combination of the mea- (cf. TA91 in the Karl Jaspers Forum http:/
wanted to discover structures without sures, the same as what you experience? To / The use of the block-uni-
making ontological assumptions, but fell pose this question is to answer “no” – I verse notion usually implies a type (ii) be-
back onto ontological positions of one or would think. But there are some realists lief that “physical reality has four
another type. Heidegger even declared who claim that brain, or brain activity, dimensions,” rather than “can in some re-
that “phenomenology is ontology” (1953, equals mind. gards best be handled using four dimen-
p. 37); this actually implies that phenom- 8. The philosopher Alva Noë (2006) ob- sions,” as one would say in a type (i)
ena = noumena, apparently without giv- serves that the work of Hubel and Wiesel constructivist view.

References philosophy/works/us/bridgman.htm on familiale. ESF editeur: Paris, pp. 41–55.

30 June 2006. Foerster, H. von & Glasersfeld, E. von (1999)
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/ Système, ethique. Perspectives en thérapie An introduction to radical constructivism.

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In: Watzlawick, P. (ed.) The invented real- approach to experiential foundations of function. The story of a twenty-five year
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80 Constructivist Foundations
anecdotal radical constructivism

“Anyone for Tennis?” –

Conversations with Ernst on
Being Sporting about Epistemology
Vincent Kenny A Accademia Costruttivista di Terapia Sistemica (Italy) <>

W hile I was in New York for the tennis

tournament at Flushing Meadows in
of the ball marked the four corners of a per-
fect square. As if this form of “square design-
tion of some passages of the resulting conver-
sations which I recorded on videotape at his
August 2005, as part of my work with tennis ing” on the floor of the clay court was not bad home.
professionals, I decided to take time out to go enough, she explained that the fifth bounce
up to Amherst to visit Ernst and engage him had to land dead centre in this square. She Vincent Kenny: In a certain sense, what I am
in more conversations about how radical con- felt that if she managed to bounce the fifth dealing with here is a “mind-body” conflict
structivism can be useful. In this case on how ball perfectly centred – a “bull’s eye” – then on the part of the tennis player. His “mind”
it might help me in my work with the tennis she would hit a great service. If not, then she interferes with the otherwise smooth perfor-
players’ usual range of problems with their would probably make a poor service, or even mance of his “body.” This is what I call “self-
performance during the tournament. These a double-fault. interruption.” What is a sensible view of the
problems include attentional control where Now it is clear that all of this incredible mind-body issue from the radical construc-
the player needs to be able to manage selective tension and “superstitious behaviour” is no tivism point of view?
attention effectively (the ability to keep way to be planning your service game, but Ernst von Glasersfeld: No less! (laughs) Well, I
focused on what is most important while nonetheless many players have idiosyncratic have no proper model for that. Because the
screening out all else) and also to manage con- “tics” and ritualistic mind in a way is con-
centration (the ability to sustain focused habits embedded in their How much patience does it sciousness, and I accept
attention for long periods of time). Failure to game. This is OK until it consciousness as an
manage these and to fall into “distraction” of reaches the level of self-
take to be a constructivist? experiential fact, but I’ve
one type or another results in unforced errors. interruption that this no idea how it works. I
One of the main “distractions” is “over-think- young player showed. My friend and col- don’t think anyone has. There have been sev-
ing.” During the learning process, it is obvi- league Corrado Barazzutti who is a previous eral books written about this in the past 5 or 6
ously necessary to consciously analyse new world-class tennis player (who was in the top years – I looked at some of them – they are all
techniques, new strokes and so on, but the seven at the time when ahead of him were … it’s a playing with metaphors, there is no
same kind of cognitive attention in a real Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Vilas, Gerulaitis, handle on it. I’ve always said that to me it is
match situation can be fatal to one’s chances Edberg, Lendl and other all-time greats) had part of the mystical, and there is nothing I can
of winning. The correct form of focus in the his own paralysing experience in a tourna- say about that. Except that I know certain
tennis game is non-conscious. ment in the 1980s when he was unable to stop ways in which it works – that’s the wrong way
I call these problems ones of “self-inter- the preliminary ball-bouncing. It was not that of putting it – rather I know certain effects it
ruption” in that the player interferes with he bounced the ball 5, 7 or even 15 times – he can produce, but how it does that I don’t
their own performance by allowing their was simply caught in the preliminary winding know.
attention to focus on something which up action for the service which had become a So when you ask about mind-body rela-
ought to remain “invisible.” One young loop in itself, and he was not able to bring the tion in terms of psychosomatic influences,
female player was showing an extremely preliminary ball-bouncing to a stop. In the well I don’t know how they work. One has to
erratic service; sometimes hitting a series of end he had to serve under-arm as children accept them experientially, as you say with the
aces in her game, sometimes a series of dou- have to do at the beginning. tennis players. But if you play golf it is much
ble-faults. I thought I noticed something too So I brought these types of problems to worse, because in golf you have 5 minutes
“focused” in her way of making the habitual Ernst, ever insisting that RC shows itself to be between each shot, where you can imagine
“test-bouncing” of the ball on the court useful and not just a model of knowing. With what you want to do, and what you could do
before launching it in the air for the service. great patience Ernst always agrees to humour that would be bad, so that by the time that you
When I inquired with her about what she me in these conversations (many of which will go to hit that ball, if you let that go on, you see
was so focused on, she admitted, embar- in the end form a part of the book that he and that its not going to work. It is like meditation,
rassedly, that her five “test-bounces” were I have been writing over the past three years or you have to let your mind go altogether if you
done in such a way that the first four bounces more) and what follows below is a transcrip- want to play golf.

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anecdotal radical constructivism

In tennis as well! that it didn’t give truth – he didn’t see that attention on the ankle. It is part of relaxation.
EVG: Yes, but in tennis at least it is a constant whatever we do is based on inductive infer- When I was quite young and skiing much
thing, you are active all the time. In golf you ence. Meaning that we look back and we ask more than I do now, I met a chap who was
are not because the walking in between the ourselves “what has worked,” and in this one of the coaches. There was an avalanche
shots doesn’t keep you busy. So I don’t know sense you establish a number of action and accident somewhere fairly close to us. Four
what to tell you… thought patterns that you consider reliable, people were dug out 36 hours later. All alive,
but there again you mustn’t think that they but two of them had very bad frostbite and
You have written about a radical construc- are absolutely reliable. The moment may lost toes and whatnot. But the other two
tivist frame of mind, where you talk of the come when they are no didn’t. And the coach
need to rebuild a number of concepts from a longer reliable. So that It’s very easy I think to pick up said that the two who
radical constructivism point of view – con- does away with truth. the first ideas of constructivism, didn’t have the frost-
cepts like “knowledge,” “truth,” “communi- bite damage were the
cation,” “understanding” and so on. That Talking about viabil-
but then to apply them to your two who had prac-
from a radical constructivism point of view ity… daily thinking that takes a long tised autogenic relax-
these have to be redefined. Would you say EVG: It is very com- time. But they say it takes seven ation – that kept their
something about this task, about this frame plex because viability years to play golf, it takes longer circulation going
of mind? also has a subjective while being buried
EVG: I think that one starting point is the real- component. Who to be a constructivist under the snow. That
isation that whatever reality is like, we cannot decides what is viable? impressed all of us
find out. We can make… – not even hypothet- You decide. And I think that becomes very enormously because avalanches were some-
ical models because hypothetical models are clear if you take the example of people in thing that were very close to us always. So we
models that you think you will be able to verify prison – some people have been in prison for learned a little bit of that.
at some point –… with reality you cannot do years, and manage perfectly well to live. They
that, they are fictions. Kant I think had a very may have regretted all sorts of things but they … of the autogenic training?
good expression he called “heuristic fictions,” did not lose their sanity, they didn’t become EVG: Yes. It is very primitive really, there’s
and that is what reality is. He said that of the fundamentally damaged by it. Whereas oth- nothing mysterious to it. You just learn to
“thing in itself ” which most readers of Kant ers can’t manage to find a viable way of living relax bit by bit, your fingers and toes etc,
don’t take in, that it is a fiction. They think that in prison. So, it is subjective too in that sense until you lie quite flat and nothing moves. If
Kant has anchored himself in reality with the that it is you who decides what is viable. you do that seriously for 3 or 4 weeks, you
“thing-as-such” or the “thing-in-itself.” But can manage to go asleep whenever you want
this is nonsense, he didn’t. He considered it a There must be a lot of different bases for to, which is an enormous advantage. I don’t
useful heuristic fiction. deciding what is viable. One obvious one is know that I would survive an avalanche, but
So if you start with the notion that you “bodily sensations.” If I feel good then that’s it serves your purpose when you go to the
cannot find out what reality is good enough. I probably dentist for instance. You just relax com-
like, you automatically have to Who decides what is don’t have to think too pletely and you take your mind off your
modify your concept of truth, much about it. If I feel bad teeth. It doesn’t kill the pain but it makes it
because traditionally truth is
viable? You decide then I have a choice…. I can much more bearable. I think that’s an impor-
an exact replica of reality. adapt to it, or I can lower my tant thing – it should be given to people
What is correct is if it is “like reality.” You can’t criteria. I can decide. It is how I see most when they are children. This is something
have that anymore. So what is truth? Truth people living, by accepting and adapting to which some of the oriental philosophy
becomes what I call viability – it is what you things that they really shouldn’t accept. implies, the Buddhist notion of cutting out
have found to be working, to be successful. EVG: They have reduced their expectations the self, and all that. That’s a form of freeing
Now how do you establish what is success- and everything. your attention.
ful? That’s rather complicated because there
are several dimensions on which it can be So reducing expectations is one way of It is what I try to do with the tennis players
successful. It can be successful in that it just deciding if something is viable – you “settle – to redirect their attention away from neg-
works this time – but you don’t know if it will for less.” There must be several different ative thoughts, from being impatient with
work tomorrow again or not. So viability – in criteria you could specify that people use themselves etc… How much patience does
the sense that you apply it to action patterns habitually for deciding viability? it take to be a constructivist?
or thought patterns – is built up in time. As EVG: Well I’m sure there are many ways of EVG: Well it takes a long time to be consis-
they are successful on more than one occa- doing it. For me perhaps the most important tent. It’s very easy I think to pick up the first
sion they become more reliable. was learning to focus my attention where I ideas of constructivism, but then to apply
You see that’s the one thing that Popper, want it to be. That you don’t allow your atten- them to your daily thinking that takes a long
who was a great man, never realised that. He tion to focus on things that you don’t want. If time. But they say it takes seven years to play
had such a thing about inductive inference – you have a twisted ankle, you stop focusing golf, it takes longer to be a constructivist.

82 Constructivist Foundations
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How much longer? Yes, and that’s a big suffering – to undo non- Then there is the other problem that one
EVG: I think that’s individual. I still find conscious habits. And the immediate conse- can’t do change on your own – you need
myself occasionally saying things – (laughs) I quence is that his game gets much worse. So judicious feedback from others. For example,
laugh at the moment I say them (“how could he plays much worse because he now has no the tennis player needs to see himself on
you say that?” I ask myself) – well that’s after service game at all. In order to change his video…
40 years! I remember Ceccato who had been service, the player has to re-learn the new EVG: … and when he sees himself he is horri-
at it for a long time in his own way – he didn’t service in the real game context – in the fied! When I saw the first movie of myself ski-
call it constructivism – but taking the notion actual tournament situation. This means ing I was absolutely horrified. You do a lot of
that you can’t talk about “reality,” he some- that the player has to turn up in the various things that you aren’t aware of.
times after a lecture came and said “how countries following the ATP programme to
could I have said that” (having talked of “real- sign up for the tournament knowing that he But in more general terms of human learning
ity”). Because you see the habits of speech, cannot win it. He also has to see himself and communications, what other ingredients
the habits of expression that you have grown drop in the world rankings – losing his ATP apart from feedback and disintegration of
into before you ever thought of epistemology points and so on. A lot of players get too ner- performance habits are needed to make an
or anything like that, they are very strong. You vous, watching their rankings slip, watching effective constructivist communication net-
deal with tennis players, if you tell a player the sponsors get nervous about renewing work? One with reflexive criticism etc. What
who is fairly good but not good enough to contracts etc. Many players never manage to other constructivist ingredients would we
change the grip on his racket, how long does stick it out long enough to develop the new need to make it work, … to make a research
it take for him to really get into that, to do it service game. They freeze when they see they project work constructively? …
automatically? are getting worse, that their game is disinte- EVG: In order to make it work, and I speak
grating, and there is little sign of the light at from a certain amount of experience because
A long time. the end of the tunnel. I’ve run a research project you know, you need
EVG: With tennis I would say at least several So here we have a very general question an enormous amount of patience, and the
weeks. about human learning. How do you change knowledge that it is very difficult to change
your human living in your own ways of see-
Oh yeah. This is a good example because in some way – and be You have something that works ing. If you don’t, you
the last few years I have seen a number of able to sustain the get irritable and that
players who have had to try to change their disintegration of per-
for you very reliably, and of doesn’t help. In one
service because their way of serving was not formance that must course you think that that is the research project we had
effective, with too low a percentage of first necessarily be lived. way things really are a computer program-
service balls effectively in play. What he has All learning has this mer who was a genius,
to do is to unlearn all those habits of serv- problem. but to get on with him I had to learn that you
ing… EVG: Well … all learning except for the very know, and it wasn’t easy at all. He was brilliant
EVG: (interrupts) excuse me, but what he has young. The very young have very little habit- and accepted the constructivist notion abso-
to do is to undo connections that are auto- ual acting. So it is easy. But that’s why children lutely, but when we came to something that I
matic, they are not conscious … and that’s the can be taught a sport much more easily than thought was worth doing but he didn’t, then it
difficulty. adults. was very difficult to phrase that in some way
My mother grew up with telemark and so that was compatible. But in the end I succeeded
did I. Then at the end of the 1920’s she starting with a lot of patience, of rewording, different
seeing the other style and she wanted to do examples, …. and above all never thinking
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER that because it was much faster, much better. that he was stupid! Because he wasn’t you see.
She literally broke down and cried because You had to accept that this was an intelligent
Vincent Kenny was born in Ireland and
she couldn’t do it. It took her years longer than person’s reaction, and cope with it. Which is
studied for degrees in philosophy and psy-
me, but I could adapt to the new style without difficult.
chology at Trinity College Dublin in the
too much difficulty. But with her, it was much
1960s. Since the 1970s he has worked
harder – every movement on skis has got to be Because the first thing that people react with
applying constructivist ideas in the very dif-
automatic you know. She fell you know, fall- is that the other is “stupid.” It is clear that get-
ferent fields of psychotherapy, consulting to
ing for a good skier is just the end you know, ting irritated with children is the wrong thing
organisations, and to tennis psychology –
you feel like giving up. It is very real tangible to do. We often hear exasperated parents say-
working with professionals in the ATP and
suffering. ing “Are you stupid or something..?” It’s the
WTA tours. His main current position is as
most common reaction to someone who
director of the “Accademia Costruttivista di
How old was she when she tried to make that doesn’t share your point of view – why
Terapia Sistemica” in Rome, which is a new
change? should this be the case?
center for training in radical constructivist
EVG: She must have been in her late 30s. And EVG: Because you have something that works
psychotherapy approaches.
she was very good you see. for you very reliably, and of course you think

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 83

anecdotal radical constructivism

that that is the way things really are. We fit into the constraints. But if the constraints Is that reasonable?
should remember what Montessori said get very tight it is very difficult to maintain EVG: It’s the only thing you can blame. You
about children so many years ago: “Help them that notion – the notion that it is you who don’t know why, you don’t know where they
to do what they want to do, but don’t force constructs your world. come from; you don’t know what’s going on.
them to do what you do.” She said that over A person does not consciously construct In your experience there is extremely little to
100 years ago. the world in which his wife gets a terrible dis- work with. And that’s very hard. I find myself
Unfortunately one often goes back to a ease. So is that his construction? Of course getting irritated sometimes … so how can I
non reflexive way of acting. This is a very dif- not. But it is his construction in the sense that blame other people?
ficult problem. Ultimately, what it boils down he is operating within extremely tight con-
to is that it is all very well to be aware that you straints. It is like being in prison if you like.
are operating within constraints and the Your constraints have suddenly shrunk. And Received: 18 October 2006
models that you make are only the ones that you begin to blame the constraints. Accepted: 5 February 2007

84 Constructivist Foundations
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To Find a Daisy in December

Impressions of Ernst von Glasersfeld
and an Interview with Him about Constructivism and Education
Reinhard Voß A University of Koblenz (Germany) <>

First Heidelberg
In the eyes of many, Ernst von Glasersfeld is
a man and scientist quite different from
together experts in epistemology and clinical
therapy to discuss the question of how to relate
conference on systemic-
others. This is particularly important in our second-order cybernetics to daily therapeutic
postmodern times, practice. Among the constructivist school
which celebrate outer participants of this
appearance and public The systemic-constructivist meeting were Heinz
education (1996)
efficiency – pretence approach describes an attitude von Foerster, Ernst von On the occasion of my first nationwide con-
over being. characterized by the Glasersfeld, Humberto ference on systemic-constructivist school
In the first place, it Maturana, Lynn Hoff- education, organized in cooperation with
was the man Ernst von
recognition of autonomy, man, the clinical teams the International Society of Systemic Ther-
Glasersfeld who respect, appreciation, empathic from Galveston apy, I found myself together with Ernst von
impressed me. Later, I curiosity, responsibility and (Anderson, Goolish- Glasersfeld in a small pub in the historic part
recognized that it was a the quest for viable ian), Milano (Boscolo, of Heidelberg. He recounted stories from his
special Haltung (atti- Cecchin) and Tromsö life which gave me the impression that con-
tude) that had shaped developments and solutions (Andersen, Flam), and structivism had been important to him since
and pervaded his whole others. his early childhood days.
person, thinking and acting, his scientific The first joint dinner was meant to bring “I grew up in-between three languages,
work, his appearance in public and private people together in a pleasant and relaxed without a mother tongue so to speak.
contexts. It was that whole attitude – which is atmosphere to become acquainted with one Under such conditions you quickly recog-
obviously more than the sum of its parts – that another. Places at the table were allocated by nize how different the worlds are that
appealed to me as a model for my own theo- drawing lots. Next to me was an older man, tall you’re speaking of … And gradually I real-
retical reflections and ways of acting in the and athletic, his hair turning gray. He almost ized that one has to construct a different
field of systemic-constructivist education. seemed aristocratic to me; a very nice and Wirklichkeit (reality) in each language.”
“The systemic-constructivist approach friendly man, polite, reserved, nearly shy, (Glasersfeld in: Foerster & Glasersfeld
describes a Haltung (attitude) characterized modest and careful. I conversed with a man 1999, pp. 192, 195).
by the recognition of autonomy, respect, who turned to me with great empathy and Born in Munich to Austrian parents,
appreciation, empathic curiosity, responsibil- interest. Unlike the usual behavior of the Ernst von Glasersfeld grew up in Switzerland
ity and the quest for viable developments and majority of scientists, his did not show any and Austria. After only three semesters at
solutions.” (Voß 2005, p. 53) attempt of self-promotion. We talked about universities in Zurich and Vienna, he emi-
the place of the meeting, which evoked many grated to Australia, where he worked as a ski-
memories of my childhood in a German min- instructor. Later, he was a farmer in Ireland
First encounter in ing town. for several years. In 1946, he moved to Italy,
The next morning in the plenary, Ernst von where he worked as a journalist and as a
Sulitjelma (1988) Glasersfeld gave me the impression of a calm- cooperator at the Ceccato’s Scuola Operativa
Sulitjelma is an old mining town in the moun- ing influence between the “wizard and enter- Italiana. He was already in his 50s when he
tains of Norway above the arctic circle. When tainer” Heinz von Foerster and the rather entered the Scientific Community without a
in June 1988 some 170 clinicians and scientists intellectually reserved appearance of Hum- formal qualification such as a PhD. From a
from several countries met there, this sleepy berto Maturana. In an upright posture (both German perspective, this seems almost
village awoke to new life for a couple of days. physically and mentally) he presented his incredible. From 1970 onwards, he taught
Indeed, it was like joining a “Greek kitchen,” as positions in a precise way. He did not pretend cognitive psychology at the University of
the invitation from the Norwegian family to proclaim certain knowledge, but his whole Georgia, Athens (em. 1987). Later he became
therapists had announced: a cosy place of inti- presentation was marked by his characteristic an Associate Member of the Scientific Rea-
mate, personal and in-depth conversation. modesty, with which he created a unique soning Research Institute at the University of
The aim of the conference was to bring atmosphere. Massachussets, Amherst.

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 85
educational radical constructivism

“Well, of course, if you have the feeling that “The trouble is that the word ‘viable’ says order and in my opinion this is the most
you can do it, that’s fine and you won’t stop too much. The only thing that matters is to important thing. What distinguishes con-
learning.” (Glasersfeld in: Foester & Gla- get by.” (Glasersfeld in: Foester & Glasers- structivism from other theories of cognition
sersfeld 1999, p. 41) feld 1999, p. 129) is above all the relation between what we call
Ernst von Glasersfeld has succeeded in knowledge and the so-called reality, that is a
finding a viable fit between the man and the world as it may be before we know and cap-
Lecture at the scientist and in embodying a Haltung (atti- ture it. In the conventional theory of cogni-
tude) that represents constructivism. He was tion, this relation has always been conceived
University of Koblenz prepared to get involved with a “different as a copy or representation of something or
(2001) way of thinking” and to deal with a matter whatever you would like to call it. Construc-
that is often “demanding and uncomfort- tivism abandons these ideas completely and
On the occasion of a brief visit to Ernst von able” for those affected. Ernst von Glasers- believes that what we construct as an imagi-
Glasersfeld’s house in Amherst, I invited him feld, in an interview with me on questions of nation of the world has to fit into reality. This
to give a lecture at the University of Koblenz. constructivism and school:1 fitting is a very simple term, more simple than
He did so in December 2001. Waiting for the the kind of fitting we are talking about when
start of his lecture, he took a walk along the we are buying a pair of shoes. First, the shoes
Rhine. On his return, I witnessed an enthu- Dealing with an have to be big enough for our feet to fit into,
siastic Ernst, beaming all over his face. He but not so big that we get blisters when we
presented a tiny flower that he had found, uncomfortable matter – walk. The kind of fitting in the theory of cog-
exclaiming: “A daisy in December!” An interview with Ernst nition is only the first part: there is no ‘too big.’
After his impressive lecture, we sat In other words, everything works that passes
together in a little wine-cellar by the Moselle von Glasersfeld the conditions of the real world. That is a rad-
(i.e., the river that meets the Rhine in ical difference. Indeed, the expression ‘radi-
Koblenz). In a relaxed atmosphere, drinking There are so many images of, opinions about cal’ came from this realization. This, of
wine and eating dainties, I discovered yet and prejudices against radical constructiv- course, has considerable consequences on
another side of the man who only minutes ism. Could you please explain to a freshman education.
ago had cast a spell over his audience with his or to a teacher who is interested in construc-
scientific talk. Bright and appreciative, boy- tivism, because he or she is looking for new, There are many forms of constructivism
ish and full of humor, he enjoyed the simple, helpful perspectives to put into practice, such as social constructivism, radical con-
country-style food. The variety of German what radical constructivism means for you? structivism and methodical constructivism.
bread especially filled him with enthusiasm, EVG: I believe that this is not difficult. First I This often confuses teachers and students
evoking memories of his Austrian years, would say that constructivism cannot be con- who want to approach constructivism. Do
which contributed to a lively conversation. sidered as a form of metaphysics. Construc- you believe that these different ways of
Some time later, a fire accident destroyed tivism is not a reflection of the world, but sim- approach have something in common
Ernst von Glasersfeld’s house in Amherst, ply a way of thinking. I think that beyond epistemological and philosophical
which he had built with his own hands. His constructivism offers a possibility to put our differences?
entire private and scientific property fell vic- system of experi- EVG: Yes, sure, otherwise people could hardly
tim to the flames … and, far in his 80s, he ences into a certain speak of constructivism. One thing they have
reconstructed in common is, for sure, the realization that
the building what we call knowledge has to be built up by
himself. children, pupils, students and all learners. It
cannot be adopted as a whole. They have to
build it up step by step. From my point of
view, this is a trivial form of constructivism.
As a second condition I would add, and most
constructivists agree with this to a certain
extent, that we no longer see knowledge as a
representation of one reality, but as a possible
way of behavior within a world that we cannot
describe properly. These are the two things on
which, I believe, all constructivists agree more
or less.

© Reinhard Voß Would you content yourself with these basic

consensual tenets or would you rather sug-

86 Constructivist Foundations
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gest that it is equally important to recognize tion. Here, we do not work against instincts, before they found the solution themselves,
the differences between specific constructiv- but very often against the fact that no terms this objection, to my mind, is exaggerated. It
ist approaches? exist at all. But when you can lead pupils into is not true. Once a pupil has found out that he
EVG: Yes, sure, because there will be confu- a situation in which it is possible or even prob- or she can find answers, it often goes quickly.
sions if one does not pay attention to the dif- able that they will develop certain chains of And when pupils have learned how to find
ferences. The people in America who call thought, maybe they will develop the right answers themselves, it is possible to give them
themselves “social constructionists” assume thoughts. And if they have developed the right answers from time to time by telling them:
that language and society exist a priori. To my thoughts, first the pupils will realize that they “Try it yourselves.” They will transfer it right
mind, this is an unprov- did it themselves, that it away into their own way of thinking and
able assumption. I cannot was their own produc- behaving and try it out. In this case it will be
agree with it, because “The trouble is that the tion, and second, that it something self-made and nothing they had to
from my point of view at word ‘viable’ says too worked. With this, one take over from someone.
first every child has to much. The only thing that can build up motivation
build up language by to face new problems I very well understand what you are saying
themselves from pieces of
matters is to get by” without being told how it because I have had the same experience. Do
their own experience. has to be done. you have an explanation for why teachers so
This experience cannot be given to a child. often say: “Children cannot do this.” Why is
They have to build up their own understand- Right now I have to smile a bit, because I this point of view so popular even among
ing of society, before they can recognize social noticed that you said “right.” In fact, you do committed educators?
phenomena as what they are. These are con- not use this term often. You never say: The EVG: There are certainly a number of reasons,
siderable differences. “right” movement, the “right” behavior. But but one of the main reasons is the fact that
you use “pushing,” and maybe we should teachers traditionally consider themselves as
You were a ski-instructor in Australia. Later keep that in mind for everyday practices in the keepers of knowledge and still have the
you worked as a university professor for education. idea that they pass it on piece by piece. And
many years. You have been a teacher in fact. EVG: Yes, “right” is always relative. It is how very often teachers still have the illusion that
With your constructivist way of thinking, the teacher wants to appear. concepts can be transmitted through lan-
did you behave differently from other teach- guage. In my opinion, this all an illusion. By
ers who had not been engaged in construc- You have clearly influenced a part of Ameri- means of language one can only, as Humberto
tivism? can education, first of all in mathematics and Maturana says, orientate, but one can never
EVG: Those were two different things. As a natural sciences. How would you, from a transmit. One can never send ideas from one
ski-instructor, I definitely did not think about temporal distance of 15 years, if I am right, person to another like in a postal package.
constructivism. But my experience as a ski- describe the importance
instructor became very important to me later and the usefulness of radical “Very often teachers On our study trip across the
on when I built up constructivism. When you constructivism for schools United States, we met many
teach people skiing, the main difficulty is that and teaching? Could you
still have the illusion teachers who did not refer to
almost all the movements a skier has to make make the differences with that concepts can be radical constructivism but to
are directed against their instinctive behavior. the traditional way of teach- transmitted through Dewey, Piaget, Vygotzky or
When you go downhill, for example, and it ing a bit more explicit? If language” even only to secondary liter-
gets steeper and steeper, your instinct tells you the two of us were visiting a ature on constructivism.
to lean backward. But then your skies run school class now, how would you be able to How do you assess the chances and dangers
away from you. You have to do the exact oppo- tell whether the style of teaching was more of a pragmatic, if that is what you want to
site: when it gets steeper, do something like a constructivist or traditional? call it, or trivialized constructivism?
header. That is very difficult because the EVG: I think you can see that very easily. EVG: Differently, I would say. Dewey never
whole automatic system of the body works When you find the teachers explaining how called himself a “constructivist.” But he wrote
against it. How can you finally get a beginner something has to be, as a matter of fact, when a lot and had many good ideas that are abso-
to try to behave like that? In this case, we as you find them giving the answers to the pupils lutely compatible with constructivism. The
ski-instructors learn quickly to let the begin- themselves, they are no constructivists for whole pragmatism – I have said that before in
ner go through something like a wave in the sure. Because one of the main characteristics my writings – is very close to constructivism.
ground which is pushing him forward. This of the constructivist way is to have the pupils The difference, the main difference which I
way he leans to the front and cannot move find the answers themselves. The answers see, is that the pragmatists have always pro-
backwards. If that happens once or twice, the should not be given to them. All you can give claimed that instead of taking over truth, they
beginner realizes that it works and so he can is an orientation to think in the right direc- would take over the functioning of ideas. But
bring his instinctive reactions under control. tion. That is a radical difference. When the at the same time they have spent little time on
I think this is very important, although it opponents of constructivism say that this finding out how this practice is built up. But
works a bit differently, in the field of educa- sounds all nice but that it would take years this is exactly what constructivism wants. And

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 87

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this links constructivism to Piaget, who actu- while if the problem is complicated. But when tude) which works. It is a question of values
ally was the main constructivist in the past they get closer to a solution, they will realize and anthropology, of responsibility and tol-
century. He brought constructivism back to that they have to do everything themselves and erance. Can you agree with this?
the agenda again. In his cognitive psychology, that it does not help at all to have the solution EVG: This is a very delicate question. As for
he tried to explain the building-up of knowl- given to them. This solution they could repeat, tolerance, I’d say “yes!” Being a constructivist,
edge schematically. And in my opinion, this is learn by heart and so on, but that would not you must be tolerant for the very reason that
the main task of constructivism. mean that they had understood anything. To it is a main principal of constructivist think-
understand it, they have to construct it them- ing to consider no model, no matter how well
On this campus (University of Koblenz) for selves. I believe their own experience with this it works, as the only model. One has to apply
example, many students are interested in process is the best method that straight away to con-
Maria Montessori, and I believe there is a to convince them to orga- “The conventional theory, structivism, and I’d say
certain affinity. I would not go as far as call- nize their own teaching too, could not do anything constructivism certainly
ing her a constructivist, but a lot of what she this way. is not the only way to be
says could be brought in relation to con-
against Hitler” happy. There are others.
structivism. What do you think? But, as a consequence, Where ethics, in the sense
EVG: I would say that every person who has this means we also need a different practice of values and general ideas about values, is
dealt with Montessori and comes to construc- of teacher training and of university educa- concerned, I always say: “Constructivism is a
tivism must realize that constructivism is the tion. It should give students the opportunity theory of rational thinking.” In my opinion
fundament. Maria Montessori developed the to learn not only from theories, but also ethics is a non-rational matter. Ethics, as well
practice brilliantly and almost everything she from practices and from meta-reflections on as aesthetics, lie outside the rational and can-
said can be directly taken over to the construc- theories and practices. not be realized rationally. This is my point of
tivist way of thinking. But she was not inter- EVG: Yes, sure, but this is impossible by means view, with which you can be satisfied or not,
ested in theory. She did not formulate a basic of lectures alone. but this is how I see it.
theory. That is no disadvantage; she just did
not need it. My last question: at a dinner in Heidelberg Is there maybe a correlation with your per-
we talked about the influence and the mean- sonality, with your modesty, that you live
I personally experienced constructivist posi- ing of constructivism in the future. You everything in your own person and do not
tions as effective, helpful and useful, at the sounded a bit pessimistic then. Has your pay too much attention to it as a subject?
beginning in the field of therapy and later in opinion changed over the past few years? EVG: I agree with Heinz von Foerster, who
education and teaching. The 1996 “school EVG: I was pessimistic insofar as I did not made the wonderful remark: “Ethics tell me
conference” in Heidelberg was an attempt to believe that constructivism would turn out to how to behave myself, morals let me preach
create a platform for systemic-constructivist be a common attitude. In this point nothing how others should behave.” Therefore I plead
thinking in school education. What can we has changed, I think. I believe this will take a for ethics and not for morals. Tolerance – that
do to give teachers an understanding of con- long time, for reasons I have talked about is an attitude which often gets attacked. People
structivism? Or, in the words of Fritz Simon, numerous times before. Starting to think con- have told me, in more than one situation, that
how can we “infect” them with constructiv- structivistically, one realizes that one has to even constructivism could not do anything
ism the same way people get infected with a change radically everything one has thought against Hitler. But I can only answer: “The
flu virus? How would you explain the useful- before. There are almost no former opinions conventional theory of cognition, too, could
ness of constructivism in educational prac- one can hold on to. And this is a hard and very not do anything against Hitler.” One cannot
tice to experienced teachers who are looking unpleasant thing to do. Most people are afraid claim that any theory of thinking, of rational
for a new orientation? to do it and therefore they rather push con- thinking, can influence ethics in any way.
EVG: This is a difficult question. I think the structivism aside. I do not know if that will be
main opportunity to convince teachers of con- a common opinion after some time. If you But with regard to practices and a practical
structivism is to get them remember what happened understanding of theories, I would like to
involved in situations in “Starting to think to Vico, who was the first take a different point of view. I think it is
which they themselves constructivist, it does not important to touch these issues in a world of
have to learn something constructivistically, one look very promising. less and less tolerance? Don’t you think that
and to stimulate them to realizes that one has to this emphasis would underline the relevance
reflect on their own change radically everything Maybe one more ques- of constructivism in our time?
learning. That means to tion for me personally. I EVG: Yes, I absolutely agree with you on the
give them a problem
one has thought before” have found the useful- point about tolerance. A number of times I
they have no idea of and ness of constructivism in have written that the concept of viability in
let them write a journal for themselves about practical experience. Therefore, I have come constructivism – the term for the constructs,
what they think, how they think and how they to the conclusion that the main thing is a the theories, the conceptions and so on which
progress with the problem. That can take a form of ethics. That it is a Haltung (an atti- are accepted as functioning – that this concept

88 Constructivist Foundations
educational radical constructivism

consists of at least two levels. The first level Therefore responsibility is important in any Bibliography
refers to the observation that I recognize some- case.
thing as useful to my own experience. The sec- EVG: Yes. When you construct your own Foerster, H. von & Glasersfeld E. von (1999)
ond level, which is a higher level, refers to the Wirklichkeit (reality), the one in which you Wie wir uns erfunden haben. Carl Auer:
observation that I can interpret others in the live, you are responsible. That is unavoidable, Heidelberg.
sense that they use the same or at least analo- and it is one reason why constructivism seems Voß, R. (ed.) (2005) Unterricht aus kon-
gous principles. In this case these principles to be an uncomfortable matter for many peo- struktivistischer Sicht. Beltz: Weinheim &
would be more viable at exactly this level. To ple. If you were a biologist for example, you Basel.
build up a viable reality, I do need the others. could say that this is because of your genes and
To some extent I need the acknowledgement of that you cannot help it. If you were a behav-
others, although this acknowledgement is iorist, you could say that the environment is Note
always a result of my own interpretation of just what it is and that you cannot do anything
other people. But my interpretation must be about it. As a constructivist you cannot do The interview was originally published in
possible, after all, and sometimes it is not. This this. German under the title “Sich auf eine
is not a question of arbitrariness. In this sense ungemütliche Sache einlassen” in Voß (2005).
I agree with the point of tolerance. But toler- Thank you very much. The paper was translated by B. Grusenick
ance is only a beginning of ethical principles. (University of Leipzip), S. Neubert (Univer-
sity of Cologne), and C. Punstein (University
If this is the beginning, what comes next? of Koblenz)
EVG: There would be questions which Heinz Reinhard Voß, teacher, family therapist, is a
von Foerster calls the undecidable questions. professor for school education at the Uni-
I am always responsible for deciding on them versity of Koblenz in Germany. Received: 22 August 2006
myself. Accepted: 5 February 2007

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 89

educational radical constructivism

On Ernst von Glasersfeld’s

Contribution to Education:
One Interpretation, One Example
Marie Larochelle A Université Laval (Canada) <>
Jacques Désautels A Université Laval (Canada) <>

when only God is looking! Thus, from this

Purpose: According to the constructivist perspective tirelessly promoted by Ernst von perspective, knowledge is said to be opera-
Glasersfeld for more than 40 years now, the world we see is of a piece with our way of tive, as it allows us to operate, act and antici-
understanding and locating ourselves within it; ultimately, whenever we claim to describe pate, just as it can, obviously, lead us into
the world-in-itself, we in fact are describing the product of the mapping process that has dead ends, as is shown in one of the cases nar-
enabled us to make our way in this world and to actualize our projects within it. Obviously, rated by detective Dupin.
this kind of perspective has consequences for the way both educational action and research In “The Purloined Letter,” published circa
on this theme are conceived of and accomplished.That, at least, is what we shall attempt 1845, Dupin comments on the failure of the
to show in this article. Implications: In keeping with the claim that knowledges are con- Paris Prefect of Police to locate a letter of par-
stituted not in reference to reality “itself” but to practices and activities, constructivism amount importance, tying this inability to
advocates examining cognition in action – that is, in terms of how the latter is enacted in the police chief ’s habits of comprehending
the field. Accordingly, constructivism also seeks to prompt teachers to: (1) scrutinize the the world and assessing the capacities of oth-
processes and distinctions by which students chart out the world; (2) and to personally ers – in this instance, the thief, Minister D,
devise, on the basis of this experience, a model – or models, rather – of their students’ who also happened to be a poet. As Dupin
future relationship to the universes of knowledge intended for learning. Likewise, con- informs us, in the Prefect’s view a poet is by
structivism also aims to prompt researchers to perform some very careful detective work definition a fool and a scatterbrain; therefore,
into the ways in which this charting process is played out and thus to opt for a compre- the kind of person who would think to hide
hensive rather than an experimentalist approach. Conclusions: To adopt the constructiv- the letter nowhere else than in some unlikely
ist perspective also means to “de-siloize” knowledge production and to recognize that this spot or other. On the basis of this assumption,
production occurs in all spheres of society. From this point of view, constructivism can the Prefect and his men painstakingly
thus be viewed as a way of challenging the claims of a certain scientific establishment to searched the thief ’s apartment, ripping up the
alone possess the requisite standing for interpreting the world. inlaid pieces of the parquet floor, scrutinizing
Key words: Learning, teaching, research, methodology. the bindings of his entire book collection
beneath a microscope, peering inside the hol-
lows of the chair legs and sinking long needles

In three short stories said to have inaugu-

rated the genre of detective fiction,
and distinctions constitute practical means of
our own invention, devised to co-ordinate
into the chair cushions – all to no avail. Fur-
ther, throughout their searches, they
Edgar Allan Poe brought to life a character, and manage our experience of the world (Gla- remained completely oblivious to the letter
Auguste C. Dupin, whose comments in many sersfeld 1993). Ultimately, whenever we claim that had been placed prominently on display
ways bring to mind the comments and to describe the world-in-itself (or the “onto- atop a fireplace mantle!
thoughts of that other well-known character logically preexisting world,” to resort to philo- All of which goes to show – and on this
of our day and age we know as Ernst von Gla- sophical parlance), we in fact are describing point Dupin the detective and Glasersfeld the
sersfeld.1 Auguste C. Dupin and Ernst von the product of the mapping process that has epistemologist again think alike – the impor-
Glasersfeld are alike in holding the view that enabled us to make our way in this world and tance of developing a reflexive understanding
we are always arriving too late on the scene to to actualize our projects within it (inclusive of the world; in other words an understanding
be able to behold a pure, as-yet un-inter- even of the “dud” roadmaps – that is, the cog- that is conscious of its assumptions and that,
preted world. Rather, the world that we are nitive itineraries that have proved non-viable as a result, is conscious of being one manner
seeing and experiencing is one that has been or indeed fatal to our assumptions and of understanding or one “take” among other
configured according to both the notions that views). In short, we are describing what can be possible manners of understanding or “takes.”
we entertain about it and the distinctions with done in the world and not, to paraphrase By the same token, this does not mean that all
which we have laden it; further, such notions Geertz (1988), seeing the world as it really is takes or intellectual constructions are equal or

90 Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3
educational radical constructivism

interchangeable. Indeed, the Prefect’s failed “Especially in discussing education, we this type of situation cannot be reduced to a
efforts at finding the letter offers a telling illus- tend to focus on the child or the student as mere encounter between epistemic subjects
tration of how this is not so. On the other we see them, and we may not stress often devoid of any projects or sociocognitive his-
hand, if he and his men had previously devel- enough that what we are talking about is tory, on the one hand, and (for example) uni-
oped the habit of thinking reflexively, they but our construction of the child, and that versally enjoying a harmonious relationship
might have been able to vary their investiga- this construction is made on the basis of with the culture of writing that is a distin-
tive approaches somewhat. In addition, they our own experience and coloured by our guishing characteristic of Modern Education
might well have been able to work up not one goals and expectations.” (p. 8) (Vincent, Lahire & Thin 1994). Nor can this
but several composite drawings of the thief From this point of view, and though radi- situation be conceived of as though unfolding
and, as a result, would have multiplied their cal constructivism does not constitute a the- in a space devoid of issues of power or control
potentialities for action, as Glasersfeld would ory of teaching, as Glasersfeld has repeated over meanings, especially in view of the
say. over and over again, this mode of thinking important role ascribed to the continual
Now, such a perspective, which holds that nevertheless sets out a certain number of con- quantification and discipline of performance
our ways of doing and making things bear a straints. On the one hand, there is the require- (output) and, more generally speaking, of the
strong relationship to our ways of under- ment of coming to grips with the fact that as a individual (Foucault 1975). Furthermore, it
standing the world, also comes freighted with teacher, one acts according to one’s under- cannot be approached as though the techno-
some very strong demands in relation to standing of students’ cognition. And, on the logical artifacts and devices used in this space
teaching and to research in education. That, other hand, there is also the requirement of did not also, in a way, shape the way in which
at least, is what we shall attempt to demon- putting this understanding to the test. Indeed, students learn how to learn. For example, a
strate in this text, which, inevitably, repre- if the goal is to aid students in complexifying ruler, a compass, a protractor, a scale or a geo-
sents one interpretation of radical construc- their conceptual networks and indeed gener- graphical map all serve – as is the case with any
tivism and, owing to this fact, one example of ate new ones, then the viability of this under- technology – to define and delimit a space of
what can be accomplished with this theory. standing has to be borne out in a two-way uses and, for this reason, they constitute pow-
exchange with students such that there is the erful mediators of cognitive activity (Callon
possibility, where necessary, of transforming 1989). In short, respecting social interaction,
Teaching in a one’s constructions and integrating one’s stu- there is an abundance of research questions,
dents’ viewpoints into it (or at least what one models and methods that warrant conceptu-
constructivist mode makes of their viewpoints!). In other words, it alization and testing if one holds to the objec-
If one is to conceive of teaching from a radical is critical to delve into the processes and dis- tive of producing a more valuable fit between
constructivist perspective, one must first be tinctions whereby students configure the radical constructivism and the classroom. At
able to demonstrate reflexivity toward one’s world. It is equally critical to develop, on an the same time, it is important to guard against
own beliefs and convictions, one’s own words ongoing basis, a model (or, rather, models if viewing the classroom as a situation entirely
and deeds. Just as importantly, one must one is to avoid succumbing to the same pitfall under the sway of biographical, social or tech-
demonstrate the same capacity in respect of as the Prefect) of students’ manners of con- nical determinisms.
what one ascribes to others, including stu- ceiving not only the knowledges to which they Just so, and therein lies one of the aspects
dents. Thus one must constantly remind one- are to be given an introduction but also their brought sharply into focus by constructivism,
self that one’s descriptions are situated and “business of being a student” (métier d’élève, the learning situation bears a number of fun-
that, whenever the topic of the conversation as explicated by Perrenoud 1995).2 Teaching damental uncertainties in respect of its play-
becomes, for example, students’ cognition, from a constructivist perspective thus entails ing out over time.4 What is more, as several
the descriptions, explanations and assess- committing oneself to a recursive dialogical classroom experiments have brilliantly illus-
ments then being aired are those of an process, a conversation on “problematic sub- trated, it is indeed possible to uncover – in real
observer bringing to this exercise his or her jects,” to borrow from Bateson (1981), and time – previously undetected sources of lee-
own classifications, connections and projects. therefore in a particular form of social com- way and to convert the norms, constraints
It is not the point of view held by students munication, encounter or interaction. and agendas framing the classroom encoun-
concerning their own cognitive activity, as Until now, however, as Glasersfeld (2000) ter into learning resources. For example,
Glasersfeld (2000) has emphasized: has also noted, radical constructivists have Wood, Cobb and Yackel (1994), whose
“Piaget sometimes mentioned the danger paid scant attention to this social encounter in research was based in part on work by Gla-
of confusing an observer’s view of an terms of any sustained effort at theorization. sersfeld, have showed how it is possible, as
organism in its observed environment and This apparent disinterest of theirs has given early as primary school, to institute commu-
observer’s inferences about the view the rise to harsh criticism concerning construc- nities of practice in which the students them-
organism generates within the domain of tivism’s value and relevance for shedding new selves foster mathematical learning and
its own experience. In his own writings, light on social interactions3 or providing growth; this the students achieve by engaging
Piaget did not always make this distinction insight into encounters of the kind occurring in argument-based discussions on ways not
clear, and I think that we ourselves quite in a classroom learning situation. For indeed, only of solving a problem but also of defining
often do not pay enough attention to it. as the sociology of education has taught us, it, all the while managing the need for these

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 91

educational radical constructivism

students to take the same cycle-end examina- ther, any difficulty of comprehension potentially controversial character, since they
tion as the other children in their school dis- encountered by students is merely a question bring into play experiences of the world and
trict. In the same vein, Aikenhead (1992) has of cognitive immaturity or erroneous concep- “ways of worldmaking” (to borrow from
shown how secondary students (ages 15 to 17) tions that a solid teaching approach, seasoned Goodman 1992) that make for potentially
in a STS (Sciences-Technologies-Societies) with a bit of passion or drive, should be able rocky contact and integration, as is shown by
program became well acquainted with the to root out (Larochelle 2004; Larochelle & the difficulty encountered in interdiscipli-
political, legal and ethical issues surrounding Bednarz 1998). nary work of managing to “see what the other
the various uses made of a technical artifact On the other hand, once one accepts the sees” (Petrie 1986; Vinck 2000). In other
(in this instance, a breathalyzer) and were claim that it is not possible to perceive the words, constructivism urges the researcher to
thus able to develop an informed point of objects of the world without also having a the- focus on cognition-in-action and to perform
view on technoscience,5 this they accom- ory of the world (Douglas 1999), or the claim some very careful detective work into the
plished while also demonstrating their ability that facts are indeed produced – that is, fabri- ways in which this process is played out and
to perform as well as the other students on cated (as was stated by Bachelard and, a long negotiated in “real life” places and times.
standardized science examinations. Likewise, time before him, by Vico) – then it is a whole From this position it is possible to distin-
Roth (1998) has shown how the introduction other (educational) story that comes into guish at least three major implications for
of a technology – in this case, a glue gun – set view and it is an entirely different type of rela- research:
the stage for a dual transformation amongst tionship to knowledge and to others that is 1. To begin with, and on this point our
primary schoolchildren. To begin with, privileged (Désautels, Garrison & Fleury views converge with several of the findings
thanks to one child’s contribution of a glue 2002; Larochelle 2000). For, at that point, the and insights afforded by symbolic interac-
gun to a classroom activity centring on the (inevitable) confrontation underlying all tionism and discursive psychology, construc-
construction of various artifacts (bridges, educational action no longer unfolds as tivism prompts the researcher to examine the
towers, etc.), the other children were able to though between a group of subjects (the stu- “making and doing” of actors. And, on this
obtain harder, more resistant bonds and, as dents) versus a world of objects –that is, a set same basis, it also militates in favour of
well, more solidly structured pieces. The first of knowledges that have emerged out of research designs of investigation that have
outcome was thus to transform the material nowhere and that, from that point on, afford more in common, to borrow from the image
and discursive practices enacted in the class- no opportunity for negotiation or owner- contained in a recent article by Cyrulnik
room. And, in a second outcome, the struc- ship-taking. Rather, this confrontation stems (2003), with a goat path (that is, a winding,
ture of interactions between the various from the encounter occurring between groups rocky trail cut into the side of a steep hillside)
actors also underwent a process of transfor- of actors, or between groups of “describers of than with those research superhighways rep-
mation when, in particular, some of the stu- the world” (students and biologists or geogra- resented by laboratories or, worse yet, exper-
dents taught their classmates how to use this phers, for example); further, by injecting new imental research settings where, as Stengers
tool. Further still, as the glue gun in question symmetry into the relationships obtaining in (1987) has so aptly noted, more often than
was an electric model and the classroom was the classroom, a basis is laid not only for the not, the outcome is to shut up the very people
equipped with only two wall sockets, the stu- discussion, negotiation and indeed hybrid- who are being questioned. Thus the perspec-
dents had to cluster close to the electric outlets ization of the descriptions in question, but tive informing the researcher’s investigation
to do their building work, which immediately also for learning an “appropriate” way of is a comprehensive one – one, moreover that
created unforeseen opportunities to share, using the descriptions thus co-developed. is consistent with radical constructivism’s
negotiate and circulate knowledge. project of developing a model that describes
To sum up, and despite the reservations we “how we know what we know” (Glasersfeld
have touched on above, drawing on radical Doing research in a 1983) or, in the present case, that describes
constructivism for the purposes of conceptu- how actors know what they know.
alizing and carrying out educational action
constructivist mode 2. Secondly, constructivism advocates
opens onto picturing this action in terms of Radical constructivism also produces its opting for a conception of language that
the multiplication of possibilities for teachers share of consequences for the design and breaks decisively with the representationist
and students alike.6 Clearly, embracing such conduct of a research project. For indeed, conception currently predominant in the
an option is likely to run counter to teachers’ with the claim that knowledges are consti- field of education. According to the latter
cherished or ingrained classroom habits, for tuted not in reference to reality “itself ” but to conception, the interaction occurring
as long as we teachers continue to situate our- practices, activities, places and groups or between speakers is viewed as a mutual
selves in the capacity of discoverers or as the communities of action (Barnes 2001; adjusting of their respective mental states –
mere spokespeople for a preorganized world, Bichofsberger 2002) comes also an appeal to “as expressed in words” – following a series of
the impact of our discourses and practices will examine: the relational and operational char- data processing runs by each speaker (Brassac
give little cause for concern. Our interven- acter of these knowledges; their local, situ- 2004). In other words, it is through a two-
tions amount to driving home such messages ated character (knowledges embody points phase process that speakers eventually man-
as “that’s the way it is,” “facts are facts,” “the of view, positions, and so forth, in a given age to convey their respective meanings to
figures speak for themselves” and so on; fur- society at a given time); and, finally, their one another, with the “substance” of their

92 Constructivist Foundations
educational radical constructivism

verbal exchange being assimilated to a “con- production and, on the contrary, to consider whole other (research) story that comes into
tent” of the mind. that “the production of knowledge occurs in view just as it is an entirely different type of
By contrast with the foregoing, in the con- all spheres of society” (Darré 1999, p. 45) – relationship to knowledge and to others that
structivist model (according to which cogni- including spaces that are often associated is privileged.
tion is considered to be an activity and a prac- with the consumption rather the production
tice, as was mentioned above), a discursive of knowledge, such as the world of farmers
production is, in itself, said to constitute a (Darré 1999), nurses (Aikenhead 2005) or Concluding remarks
cognitive activity. As Chauviré (2000) has teachers (Desgagné 2005). Or, to put it a bit
emphasized, there is no need to imagine “a differently, by adopting this perspective, the For more than 40 years now, Ernst von Gla-
silent mental process forming a lining to the researcher also recognizes the capacity of sersfeld has been urging us to share in the
utterance of a sentence” (p. 54) and unfold- those usually referred to as the task perform- ceaseless making of this dual narrative
ing in some mind housed inside a brain. Fur- ers “to conceptualize their actions and to pro- through, notably, numerous seminars and
thermore, an utterance is posited as being duce and co-produce knowledge” (Darré workshops as well as the hundreds of contri-
potentially indeterminate and contextual – 1999, p. 46); and, as corollary to the preced- butions he has penned in a broad range of
even for the person uttering it, who might be ing, this knowledge is thus not viewed as a fields (such as psychology, philosophy, lin-
“surprised by his own words” (Brassac 2004, residue or a debased version of an institu- guistics, cybernetics and, of course, educa-
p. 11). It therefore follows that interaction tionally legitimated knowledge but indeed as tion) and on themes often assumed to be self-
between speakers is not viewed in terms of a form of production in its own right.10 evident, particularly in mathematics and sci-
adjustment but instead of a joint dialogical As it so happens, drawing on constructiv- ence teaching (such as the notions of truth,
production of meanings that may, moreover, ism for research purposes may, once again, objectivity and the transparency of language).
be re-subjected to negotiation when one of throw a wrench into a researcher’s customary As is clear from the abundance of publica-
the speakers next takes his or her turn.7, 8 methodological reflexes, all the more so since tions being written under the banner of con-
Against this backdrop, the implications of there is no escaping the relativization of structivism, Glasersfeld’s urging has not gone
Austin’s program of How to Do Things with viewpoints that is promoted by constructiv- unheard, just as, moreover, the range of modes
Words can be seen more fully – if perhaps in ism. It is no longer possible to obtain an over- of appropriating constructivism’s potentiali-
an unlikely or unfamiliar light.9 Or, as Mat- arching vantage point – a dictum that applies ties for generating, evolving and actualizing
urana (2006, p. 96) has summed up: “Lan- to all discourses, including those of research- action and research in the field of education
guage is a manner of coexistence in coordina- ers claiming to adhere to constructivism.
tion of doings, not a property or a faculty of There is no way of speaking or acting as ABOUT THE AUTHORS
the brain or what we call the ‘mind’.” though the phenomena, substances and
Such is the perspective informing the events that we are speaking of and that we are Marie Larochelle is Full Professor at the Fac-
notion whereby constructivism compels claiming to encode had appeared out of thin ulté des sciences de l’éducation of Université
adopting a conception of language that rec- air and existed independently of our ways of Laval. For many years, she has actively
ognizes the latter’s constitutive role in orga- containing the world in our discipline-based researched socioepistemological problems
nizing experience and the shaping of things frameworks and projects. related to the teaching/learning of scientific
and events. As Bourdieu (1993, p. 33) noted, It is critical to be able to specify the place knowledge. Her publications have been pri-
“Words do things because they create a con- from which one speaks and to account for the marily in the field of science education and
sensus on the existence and meaning of various assumptions and commitments by constructivism. Her current research inter-
things.” Words therefore do not merely serve which one configures the world and, as a ests focus on how students and future sci-
as the outer garb of thought (Merleau-Ponty result, be able to reintroduce, following the ence teachers figure or represent the
1976, p. 212). Nor has their meaning been suggestion of Foerster (1982, 1992), “the tensions, disagreements and socioethical
“indexed” once and for all, since meaning properties of the observer into the descrip- issues that shape the practice of the techno-
grows out of contexts of usage, not to men- tion of his or her observations.” The reintro- sciences.
tion customary ways of reacting and duction of such properties represents a major Jacques Désautels is Full Professor at the Fac-
responding; in short, meaning grows out of break with the usual scientific text which ulté des sciences de l’éducation of Université
the history of the speakers (Quéré 1994). rests, on the contrary, on a rhetoric that tends Laval. For more than 20 years, he has been
3. Finally, by privileging a pragmatic con- to erase all traces of human activity and to concerned with the pedagogical and ideolog-
ception of knowledge, radical constructivism facilitate the “naturalization” of the affirma- ical dimensions of science teaching. He has
disrupts the social hierarchy of knowledge tions in question – that is, to persuade readers author or co-authored several works and
and the accompanying “racism of intelli- that they are indeed beholding a given fact or articles, written from a socio-constructivist
gence” (to quote again from Bourdieu 1980) phenomena, and indeed the world, as it really perspective, in the field of science education.
that consists in ascribing the ability to pro- is (Gross 1990; Larochelle & Désautels His current research interests focus on the
duce valid bodies of learning and knowledge 2002).11 type of power/knowledge relationship fos-
to certain groups only. Constructivism thus Thus, as was the case above concerning tered by the teaching of the technosciences.
bids researchers to “de-siloize” knowledge education, with radical constructivism it is a

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 93

educational radical constructivism

testifies to the many, varied paths being pur- thinking” (la pensée qui se risque, in Barthes’s capacity “to make the mute world speak, to
sued in Glasersfeld’s multidirectional foot- words) – the type of thinking to which the state the truth in the absence of discussion,
steps!12 work of Ernst von Glasersfeld testifies most [and] to put an end to interminable debates
All things considered, the really astonish- convincingly. This non-orthodoxy is, in our via some indisputable authority deriving
ing thing would be that no such diversity view, really quite wonderful, particularly in from things themselves.” From this perspec-
should have occurred. As has been pointed view of the intellectual freedom Ernst von tive, radical constructivism may also be con-
out by Heinz von Foerster, one of Ernst von Glasersfeld has passed on to us, thanks to sidered as a way of engaging in politics other-
Glasersfeld’s long-time friends, with radical which one may devise ways of acting and wise.
constructivism, we have now resolutely making one way forward in the world, includ-
entered into the “realm of nontrivial ing the world of education.
machines.” By this image, Foerster (1997) is However, as with every groundbreaking Acknowledgements
referring to the whole of those machines, sys- contribution, Glasersfeld’s work brings into
tems and organizations which, once fed a play stakes whose importance should by no This paper was written within the framework
stimulus A, do not then necessarily produce means be underestimated. For, above all, of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research
B, since their history and projects also mobi- challenging the idea that our knowledge Council of Canada research project. The
lize them to do what they do – making a sham- reflects the ontologically preexisting world authors wish to thank Donald Kellough for
bles of our expectations and predictions along amounts to challenging (to borrow from this translation as well as their Faculty’s
the way. They are disobedient machines, Latour 1999, pp. 27–28) “the most fabulous administration for its financial contribution
enthusiastically engaging in “venturesome political capacity ever invented” – namely, the toward translation costs.

Notes which such concepts have emerged (What part of a process of interpenetration or
is science? What is history? etc). By way of overlap; by way of corollary, the emer-
1. The introduction to this article is based on example, see Audigier (1993), Désautels & gence of the sovereign individual or the
excerpts from the address given by Marie Larochelle (1998), Leach, Driver, Scott & sovereign society is the result of analytical
Larochelle on 18 June 2006 on the occa- Wood-Robinson (1996). distinctions made by observers from a par-
sion of the Université Laval (Québec, Que- 3. For example, according to Gergen (1995), ticular perspective.
bec) graduation ceremony at which Ernst radical constructivism involves a dualism 4. It is thus possible to model an educational
von Glasersfeld was awarded the degree of that results in postulating the individual situation as a complex, dynamic and inde-
doctor of education honoris causa. In these and society as two independent entities. It terminate system whose future changes
excerpts, Larochelle brought out a similar- is not possible in this article to examine the cannot be predicted and which may in-
ity between Glasersfeld and Dupin, the various arguments he brings to bear, but deed evolve toward a range of different
celebrated detective portrayed by Edgar in our view it would be worthwhile taking stable states (attractors, eigen-values, etc.)
Allan Poe. She realized only recently, while up the solution proposed by Kuhn (1983), or, on the contrary, become chaotic.
re-reading the preface to Glasersfeld’s who showed that production of scientific 5. For example, the students were given a
1987 book The Construction of Knowledge, knowledge is a simultaneously cognitive look into the “interpretive flexibility” ex-
that its author, Heinz von Foerster, had and social process. The paradigm (set of hibited by scientists toward data in situa-
also noted this very same similarity. In- theories, exemplars and standards) is con- tions requiring them to establish, for
deed, some 20 years had gone by since she stitutive of the science community that example, the norms governing acceptable
had last read this preface, with the result constructs the paradigm, and the stabiliza- blood alcohol levels. In the process, they
that in June 2006, she genuinely imagined tion of this paradigm proceeds through were able to acquire some critical distance
that she was working from an association the recruitment, into this community, of toward the commonly conveyed, idealized
that had previously gone unnoticed! new members who in turn learn to work images and opinions of science.
2. The fecundity of this perspective in terms within the framework of the paradigm and 6. In a recent article intended to provide an
of revisiting certain problems of teaching pursue the standard task of resolving enig- overview of the question, Kirschner,
and learning science has, moreover, be- mas until such time as new controversies Sweller and Clark (2006) maintain that
come widely recognized and has, in the last arise. In other words, paradigm and com- various forms of teaching based on con-
few decades, generated an extensive pro- munity are mutually constitutive, in a cir- structivism (such as discovery teaching,
gram of research that has systematically cular manner that recalls the recursive inquiry teaching or problem-based teach-
elicited the views of students of all ages processes seen stabilizing around eigen- ing) have proved to be a failure where
concerning particular concepts (e.g., that behaviours, as Foerster (1997) has sug- learning is concerned. For several reasons,
of particle, ecosystem, revolution, objec- gested. In a similar manner, individuals their argument does not hold water. To
tivity, and so on) as well as the fields from and societies are mutually constitutive, as begin with, from a methodological point

94 Constructivist Foundations
educational radical constructivism

of view, the authors do not explicate how ly transparent product and thus cannot be French as Quand dire, c’est faire by Seuil:
they went about constituting the corpus of made the end goal of some artless, naïve Paris in 1970).
research on which they base their verdict. process of discovery. In short, there are 10.One outstanding case of this is to be found
Nor do they provide much in the way of grounds for asking oneself whether the au- in the Association française contre les myo-
specifics relating to the theoretical and thors were taking aim at the wrong target pathies. Infantile spinal muscular atrophy,
methodological frameworks characteriz- and whether indeed the real cause for con- an incurable neuromuscular disease, was
ing the research work that they examined, cern is not their own folk conception of originally considered to be an orphan dis-
or to the overall context of inquiry in constructivism. Admittedly, exhausting ease. In numerous cases, doctors did not
which the various research projects were the list of objections would take quite even know what name to give the disease,
conducted. The authors stick to a “rheto- some doing, and besides, the space re- much less what palliative care to suggest.
ric of outcomes (or effectiveness),” where- quirements of this footnote would no Eventually, parents were the ones who, as
as one would have thought them willing doubt make any such attempt here entirely they gradually formed an association, took
and able, on the basis of their blanket as- unfeasible. In another recent publication charge of the exceedingly difficult task of
sessment, to articulate a robust, full- of ours, however, we develop a more full- documenting cases, establishing compari-
fledged line of argument. One would have bodied critique of this kind of writing, sons and classifications, providing the ini-
also expected them to conduct a careful, which these times of educational reform tial descriptions of the developmental
comprehensive discussion of constructiv- have produced on a scale approaching that path of children suffering from the disease
ism – which is patently not the case here. of a glut. (Désautels et al. 2005). and of disease stages. In this regard, one
Instead, one is treated to a few definitions 7. Along the lines of the educational situa- may say that parents were the ones who
of their own cobbling and that amount to tion referred to above, this model of lin- produced the first knowledge about this
little more than clichés (e.g., p. 78). In- guistic interaction would benefit from terrible disease. See Rabeharisoa & Callon
deed, one well wonders what these authors being “socialized,” and from ascribing (1999).
actually understand about constructivism greater importance to the negotiation of 11.It is the imposition of a particular intellec-
– they who claim to adhere to a mechanis- “positioning relationships” (rapports de tual layout (Introduction, Method and Ma-
tic and realist theory of cognition (short- places) that are often brought into play in terials, Results, Discussion), serving to
and long-term memory), who approach this type of interaction – i.e., involving ne- bracket off, in steps, the contingencies in-
learning as though it were some sort of gotiation of the authority deriving from herent to research (as well as any traces of
chest of drawers (in this drawer, working such things as social status, institutional the observer) that enables the text to pro-
memory, in that one, long-term memory, position, gender, age, prestige, experience, duce this genuinely political effect. In this
etc.) and who, quite obviously, are unfa- “high marks,” etc. (Kerbrat-Orecchioni connection, Madigan, Johnson and Lin-
miliar with the models of self-organiza- 1987). ton (1995) have performed a most instruc-
tion bearing on memory, for example 8. For an illustration of this discursive nego- tive analysis of the American Psychological
(Clancey 1997). They have, on the other tiation process as it is engaged in by sec- Association (APA) style sheet, which in
hand, demonstrated a most surprising ondary students, see Larochelle & several fields is considered the sacrosanct
ability to tie constructivism to such things Désautels (2001). authority on the rules governing the com-
as permissiveness or the absence of guid- 9. Translator’s note: Certainly one of the position of articles and research reports.
ance. Only a woeful ignorance of the real- most fruitful models to explore and expli- 12.Several works illustrate the diversity of in-
ity of education, constructivism and the cate the “economy of linguistic exchang- terpretations that have been developed
scientific literature on the subject can ex- es” in reflexive or constructivist terms is to about this subject, with this diversity con-
plain their assertion that a teaching ap- be found in Pierre Bourdieu’s seminal Ce stituting – to follow Kuhn (1983) – one of
proach drawing on the tenets of que parler veut dire, 1982, which was the conditions for the practice and devel-
constructivism will reduce education to a brought out in an English edition by J. B. opment of knowledge referred to as scien-
self-guided experience, with teachers no Thompson (translated by G. Raymond tific. For a summary of the debates in
longer having to “orient” students’ efforts and M. Adamson) under the title of Lan- education, see, in particular: Glasersfeld
to construct a conceptual structure, for ex- guage and Symbolic Power by Harvard (1991), Jenkins (2002), Larochelle, Bed-
ample. Such is clearly not the case, as the University Press: Cambridge MA in 1991. narz and Garrison (1998), Phillips (2000),
research of Woods et al. or Aikenhead, cit- The French title of Bourdieu’s work – Steffe and Gale (1995), Steffe and Thomp-
ed in the body of this text, has so amply which, more literally rendered, equates son (2000), and Tobin (1993). For an
shown. Likewise, their lumping together with What Speaking Means – was intended overview in other fields, see Volume 23 of
of constructivism and discovery teaching as a wink at J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things Social Studies of Science (1993); see also is-
bespeaks a dismaying degree of misunder- with Words, whose title itself contained a sues 18 and 19 of Cahiers critiques de
standing on their part, as it is constructiv- gently mocking allusion to do-it-yourself thérapie familiale et de pratiques de réseaux
ism’s claim that knowledges are not, manuals (first brought out in 1962 by (1997, 1998) and issue 17 of La Revue du
precisely, an immediately or spontaneous- Clarendon Press and translated into MAUSS (2001).

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Coming to Our Senses:

From Constructivism to
Democratization of Math Education
Ana Pasztor A Florida International University (USA) <>

Motivation: Paralleling my own transformation from a Platonist to a radical constructivist, itself, will not only be unable to recognize and
mathematics education has been experiencing for more than a decade a movement that adjust to changes in its perception of reality,
started in theoretical foundations mostly originating in von Glasersfeld’s work, and then but will also be unable to tolerate any other
reached professional organizations, which have been leading extensive efforts to reform representation of reality. I have had first hand
school mathematics according to constructivist principles. However, the theories experience of examples that “go from the
espoused by the researchers are, as yet, too abstract to lend themselves readily to imple- ridiculous to the gruesome” of a totalitarian
mentation in the classroom. Purpose: I define a shared experiential language (SEL) for the regime’s “paradoxical, recursive logic” that
constructivist teacher to embody in order to transform her practice congruently according typically characterizes paranoia: “It is inher-
to constructivist principles. While SEL is comprised of Neuro-Linguistic Programming ent to the concept of paranoia that it rests on
(NLP) subjective experience distinctions, what “makes it tick” is the constructivist epistemol- a fundamental assumption that is held to be
ogy with its insight that for consistent understanding to happen, new knowledge has to absolutely true. Because this fundamental
attach to prior experiences in a process of co-construction. Throughout the paper, I elab- assumption is axiomatic, it cannot and need
orate and validate this insight by numerous examples. Practical implications: Utilizing not demonstrate its own veracity. Strict logi-
SEL allows understanding of mathematics to be rooted in each student’s individual sensory cal deductions are then made from this fun-
experiences, thus shifting the responsibility for success in mathematics from the students damental premise and create a reality in
back to those who guide them in co-constructing knowledge. This, in turn, should allow which any failures and inconsistencies of the
everybody access to understanding and so it should no longer be socially acceptable to fail system are attributed to the deduction, but
in mathematics. Key words: Radical constructivism, math education, Neuro-Linguistic Pro- never to the original premise itself ” (ibid., pp.
gramming, sensory experience, behavioral cues, democratization. 223–224). Whoever criticizes the premises of
the system is therefore declared to be an
enemy and will not be tolerated.
The child cannot conceive of tasks, the way to of models of subjective experience created for Ten years later, my then therapist and now
solve them and the solutions in terms other than the purpose of making explicit and emulating co-author and friend, Mary Hale-Haniff,
those that are available at the particular moment in oneself and others strategies of excellence introduced me to constructivist therapies.
in his or her conceptual development. The child (Dilts et al. 1980). Its primary tenet (formu- What a shake-up I had when I read in Lynn
must make meaning of the task and try to con- lated originally by A. Korzybski) is “The map Hoffman’s (1990) paper an account of Heinz
struct a solution by using material she already is not the territory,” which, in the words of von Foerster criticizing NLP’s tenet, “The
has. That material cannot be anything but the Watzlawick (1984), means that “the name is map is not the territory,” and confronting it
conceptual building blocks and operations that not what it names; an interpretation of reality with his own view that “The map is the terri-
the child has assembled in his or her own prior is only an interpretation and not reality itself. tory”! Once again, I embarked on a “Learning
experience. — Glasersfeld (1987, p. 12) Only a schizophrenic eats the menu instead of III” experience, and it all fell into place when
the foods listed on the menu” (p. 215). I I read von Glasersfeld’s (1984) introduction
embraced this tenet, and as a consequence a to radical constructivism. It clicked. It fit per-
Introduction shift in my world view occurred that turned fectly with most aspects of my life – some con-
my life around: I moved from the modernist’s scious, some unconscious. It fit with my dis-
Having been trained in the Platonism of tra- belief in an objective reality accessible by rea- satisfaction with the hierarchical teacher–
ditional mathematics, my first “Learning III” son and observation to the postmodernist’s student, physician–patient, therapist–client
experience that Bateson defined as one in belief in subjectivity (Pasztor & Slater 2000). and other similar relationships, and my deep
which “there is a profound reorganization of Having grown up in a communist country, distrust of statistics and other quantitative
character” (Bateson 1972, p. 301) occurred in Watzlawick’s (1984) words struck a chord research methodologies. I came to under-
the late 80s when I started studying Neuro- with me: any system that denies that it oper- stand that NLP’s epistemology was incongru-
Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP is a set ates on a map of reality, rather than on reality ent with its overall intents. Its map-territory

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distinction presupposed the existence of a The traditional tem hierarchy are the “objective” experts of
reality that preexists the observer and from knowledge; they determine teaching goals
which information is filtered onto our indi- approach to and criteria of assessment. Accordingly, the
vidual maps (Hale-Haniff 2004). NLP models mathematics education traditional teacher–student relationship is a
were designed to “force” the client to change hierarchical, authoritarian relationship.
limitations in her map. Thus, the therapist– The traditional, positivist approach to
client relationship once again became a hier- instruction has been referred to as “the Age of
archical and coercive one. the Sage on the Stage” (Davis & Maher 1997, The constructivist view
I was suddenly able to observe that numer- p. 93), due to its “transmission” model of
ous fields such as education, science, psycho- teaching, where teaching means “getting
of knowledge and its
therapy, linguistics, organizational studies, knowledge into the heads” of the students implications for
etc., were undergoing a paradigm shift from (Glasersfeld 1987, p. 3), that is, transmitting
positivism to constructivism, to a world view knowledge from the teacher to the student.
mathematics education
in which adherence to authority and external The underlying philosophy is that knowledge In contrast to positivist philosophy, construc-
control is replaced by reliance and trust in is out there, independent of the knower, ready tivist philosophies have adopted a concept of
subjective experience. This, in turn, would to be discovered and be transferred into peo- knowledge that is not based on any belief in an
necessarily lead to a democratization of the ple’s heads. It is “a commodity that can be accessible objective reality. In the radical con-
respective field, since knowledge or expertise communicated” (Glasersfeld 1987, p. 6). The structivist view, knowing is not matching
is not the privilege of a small “talented” elite, ontology presupposed in this view is that there reality, but rather finding a fit with observa-
but can be constructed by each person is one true reality out there, which exists inde- tions. Constructivist knowledge “is knowl-
according to their previous experience. pendently of the observer. Furthermore, we edge that human reason derives from experi-
Hardest to understand in the shift to radi- have access to this reality, and we can frag- ence. It does not represent a picture of the
cal constructivism – even to the theorist – is ment, study, predict and control it (Lincoln & ‘real’ world but provides structure and orga-
the distinction between its tenets and state- Guba 1985; Hale-Haniff & Pasztor 1999). nization to experience. As such it has an all-
ments such as ‘there exists an external reality, However, as von Glasersfeld (1987, p. 4) important function: It enables us to solve
but we do not have direct, unmediated access points out, while trying to access reality, we experiential problems” (Glasersfeld 1987,
to it’ or ‘there exists no independent reality.’ In have been caught in an age-old dilemma: If p. 5). With this theory of knowledge, the
my contribution, I will illustrate the practical truth is defined as “the perfect match, the experiencing human turns “from an explorer
impact of such a distinction on mathematics flawless representation” of reality, who is to who is condemned to seek ‘structural proper-
education. In particular, I will focus on the judge “the perfect match with reality”? ties’ of an inaccessible reality … into a builder
democratization of mathematics (cf. Pasztor To answer this question, Western philoso- of cognitive structures intended to solve such
2004a) – the shift away from the “transmis- phy has taken a route in which, given the right problems as the organism perceives or con-
sion” model of education towards a theory of tools, pure reason is believed to be able to ceives” (ibid.).
knowledge and a new methodology, in which transcend all social and cultural constraints Now, let us look at the two views that are
the process of understanding or coming to and the confines of the human body, includ- so often confused with the tenets of radical
know is a matter of constructing, from ele- ing those of perception and emotion. Mathe- constructivism (Pasztor 2004a): 1. there exists
ments available in the student’s own experi- matical reasoning has been seen as the purest a mind-independent reality (MIR), albeit
ence, conceptual structures that lead to “a via- example of reason: “purely abstract, transcen- only indirectly accessible, and 2. there exists
ble path of action, a viable solution to an dental, culture-free, unemotional, universal, no MIR. The first view is close to the positivist
experiential problem, or a viable interpreta- decontextualized, disembodied, and hence ontology, except now we do not have the pos-
tion of a piece of language,” and “there is never formal” (Lakoff & Nuñez 1997, p. 22; for sibility of a “perfect match,” but only that of a
any reason to believe that this construction is more “fine-tuned” criticism cf. Lakatos mediated match. Still, who is going to judge the
the only one possible” (Glasersfeld 1987, 1976). The traditional scientist, mathemati- “better” match?
p. 10). cian, or, in general, researcher, is out to find A constructivist view is inconsistent with
Von Glasersfeld’s writings are among the objective truth. In doing so, she is trained to both of these ontological views. As von
very few academic ones that have deeply be value-neutral in order to be able to objec- Glasersfeld (2004a, [2]) states, the construc-
affected my personal life as well (as if there tively judge “the perfect match” with reality. tivist holds “that all coordination and, there-
was a non-personal life …) Sometimes, when She is a “cool, detached, solitary genius, the fore, all structure is of the organism’s own
I ask my husband to, say, put the garbage out one who has the answers that others don’t making,” and therefore he has no way of
and he fails to do so and later I question him have, as if the truth could be owned” (Pert knowing anything about the ontological real-
about it, he may reply, “But you didn’t tell me 1997, p. 315). ity of these constructs. In fact, he has no way
to do so.” In such a case, I respond, “You can- In practice, however, there is a direct “rela- of knowing anything about an MIR. Further-
not say that I didn’t tell you, the only thing you tionship between claims to truth and the dis- more, as soon as we posit the existence or non-
can say is that you didn’t hear me tell you.” tribution of power in society” (Gergen 1991, existence of an MIR, we have caused a split
Thus, von Glasersfeld entered our marital life. p. 95). Those at the top of the educational sys- between the knower and the known. The one

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who knows whether an MIR exists or does not hole between each two successive rocks. This be “a = a,” but “a = b” was a lie and deceit. His
exist becomes the expert, the authority. In the may explain why so many students say that intellectual morality resisted such incongru-
constructivist view, a third person has no way there are no numbers, or at the most, one, ities that blocked his access to the understand-
of knowing anything about my or your own between two whole numbers.” ing of mathematics. To his old age Jung had
experience. As von Glasersfeld (2004b, [4]) While students are often able to reorganize the uncorrectable feeling that if he could have
says, “‘someone else’ is always my construc- their experience in a way that makes it fit the accepted the possibility of “a = b,” that is, of
tion.” The only expert of your experience is constraints of the problem at hand, often “sun = moon, dog = cat, etc.,” then mathe-
you. This view, as I will show, can make a tre- times the teacher needs to provide for the stu- matics would have infinitely absorbed him.
mendous difference in math education. dents “precisely those experiences that will be Instead, he came to doubt the morality of
For more than a decade now, mathematics most useful for further development or revi- mathematics for his entire life. Like so many
education in the US has been experiencing a sion of the mental structures that are being others, he came to doubt his own self-worth,
top-down reform movement that started with built” (Davis & Maher 1997, p. 94). This idea which, back then, prevented him from asking
the theoretical foundations of mathematics is wonderfully demonstrated by Machtinger questions in class (Jung 1962).
education that mostly originated in von Gla- (1965) (quoted in Davis & Maher, 1997, pp. In practice, “[f]or too many people, math-
sersfeld’s work, and then moved to the profes- 94–95) who taught kindergarten kids to con- ematics stopped making sense somewhere
sional organizations, which then started and jecture and prove several theorems about along the way. Either slowly or dramatically,
have since been leading extensive efforts to numbers, including even + even = even, they gave up on the field as hopelessly baffling
reform school mathematics according to con- even + odd = odd, and odd + odd = even. and difficult, and they grew up to be adults
structivist principles (NCTM 2000). So far, She did so by defining a number n as “even” if who – confident that others share their expe-
however, the reform has been moving only a group of n children could be organized into rience – nonchalantly announce, ‘Math was
very slowly into the mathematics classroom pairs for walking along the corridor and as just not for me’ or ‘I was never good at it.’”
practices. Besides complex political reasons “odd” if such a group had one child left over (Askey 1999). Ruth McNeill shares her story
(Alacaci & Pasztor 2002), one of the reasons when organized into pairs. Since walking of how she came to quit math: “What did me
for this is that the theories espoused by the along the corridor in pairs was a daily experi- in was the idea that a negative number times
researchers to implement constructivist prin- ence for the kids, learning the new informa- a negative number comes out to a positive
ciples are, as yet, too abstract to readily lend tion became a matter of just expanding or number. This seemed (and still seems) inher-
themselves to implementation. One of the reorganizing their existing knowledge. ently unlikely – counterintuitive, as mathe-
goals of my own research efforts in math edu- But this is not always possible. In particular maticians say. I … could not overcome my
cation has been to help translate the language it is not possible when the teacher uses incom- strong sense that multiplying intensifies
of these theories into the experiential lan- patible metaphors to explain mathematical something, and thus two negative numbers
guage of students. ideas. I was shocked and saddened by the multiplied together should properly produce
Abstract mathematical concepts are meta- great regret with which the 86-year-old Carl a very negative result” (McNeill 1988, quoted
phorical and are built from people’s sensory Jung remembered in his 1962 memoirs the in Askey 1999).
experiences (Lakoff & Nuñez 1997; Lakoff & terror that he experienced in math classes. Most mathematical concepts being meta-
Johnson 1999). The constructivist teacher’s While his teacher gave the impression that phorical and understanding a metaphor
role is to make sure that they fit the students’ algebra was very natural, the young Jung meaning successfully mapping concepts from
individual experience. Frustration and confu- failed to understand what numbers actually our individual experience onto new domains,
sion ensue if the teacher’s metaphorical map- were. He knew they were not flowers, nor ani- teaching the metaphorical structure of math-
ping is rooted in an a-priori construction, mals, nor fossils – they were nothing he could ematics becomes indispensable. It shifts the
rather than in the student’s own experience. imagine. They were just amounts that definition of “mathematical understanding”
English (1997) provides a very good example resulted from counting. To his greatest confu- from a goal that only a few “talented” or
of what happens in such a case. It concerns the sion, these amounts were replaced by letters “gifted” people can reach, to a process rooted
use of a line metaphor to represent our num- the meaning of which was a sound. His in all people’s individual experience.
ber system, whereby numbers are considered teacher tried hard to explain the purpose of
as points on a line. The “number line” is used this strange operation of replacing under-
to convey the notion of positive and negative standable amounts by sounds, but to no avail. Is 2 + 2 still 4?
number, and to visualize relationships This, what seemed to Jung to be a random
between numbers. It turns out that students expression of numbers through sounds such If objectivity of mathematics is just a myth,
frequently have difficulty in abstracting as “a,” “b,” “c,” or “x,” did not explain anything what happens to basic facts such as
mathematical ideas that are linked to the about the nature of numbers. His frustration “2 + 2 = 4?” Are we denying them? The ques-
number line (Dufour-Janvier, Bednarz & peaked with the axiom, “if a = b and b = c, tion is very nicely answered in a dialogue
Belanger 1987, quoted in English 1997, p. 8). then a = c,” since by definition it was clear that between von Foerster and von Glaserfeld in
“There is a tendency for students to see the “a” denoted something different from “b,” their (1999) book. The following is an excerpt
number line as a series of ‘stepping stones,’ and so could not be equaled with “b,” let alone from the book (translated from German by
with each step conceived of as a rock with a with “c.” He was outraged. An equality could myself).

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von Glasersfeld: “Mathematics is of course these rules. And with the action of counting his mid thirties, I asked him to solve a word
a free invention, but very often this is misun- the directions plays no role, but according to problem. “Word problem? I hate word prob-
derstood, because people say, ‘Well, if it is the rules, we may count each unit only once. lems!” was J’s response even before he knew
freely invented, why is 2 × 2 always 4?’ … The This is the number constancy” (Foerster & what the word problem was. The word prob-
free invention of course doesn’t mean that Glasersfeld 1999, pp. 133–134). lem was this: “Joey has a new puppy. His sister,
once you have assumed certain rules, you may So, while mathematics is a human con- Jenna, has a big dog. Jenna’s dog weighs eight
intentionally break these rules. It is just like in struction, it is not an arbitrary creation. It is times as much as the puppy. Both pets
chess, where you assume that the chess figures “not a mere historically contingent social together weigh 54 pounds. How much does
move in a certain way. The situations that you construction. What makes mathematics non- Joey’s puppy weigh?” J listened to the prob-
then construct, and the moves that are then arbitrary is that it uses the basic conceptual lem, and then asked me to repeat it. As I did
possible, arise as consequences of applying mechanisms of the embodied human mind… so, J made the following notes, turning his
the accepted rules. As I see it, this is the same Mathematics is a product of the neural capac- back to me:
in math. There one creates certain rules, and ities of our brains, the nature of our bodies, puppy: x
the first rules concern numbers. Counting our evolution, our environment, and our long big dog: 8x
rests on more complicated rules than most social and cultural history” (Lakoff & Nuñez x + 8x = 54
people are aware of. They can count, but are 2000, p. 9). 9x = 54
not always clear about everything they do Then he stopped and said he didn’t know
while counting. … To count, you must first his multiplication table. “So anyway, what is
have the concept of unit. Then you must per- Operative learning and the answer?” I asked. J blushed and became
ceive units, that is, you must be able to con- restless. “What do you mean?” he asked. I
struct them according to your perception.
learning states replied, “Well, what was the question?” After
You have to be able see them, or show them, In constructivism, the meaning of learning Jeff repeated the problem’s question, I asked
or push them on a table, or shift them on a rod has shifted from the student’s “correct” repli- again, “So, how much does the puppy weigh?”
on the abacus. And with each unit that you cation of what the teacher does to “the stu- Again, J didn’t answer but became instead
shift, you have to utter one of the numerals of dent’s conscious understanding of what he or more and more insecure. “Why, did I do
a fixed sequence of numerals. You must not she is doing and why it is being done” (Gla- something wrong? I must have screwed up
alter the sequence. If you follow these rules sersfeld 1987, p. 12). “Mathematical knowl- somewhere.” “No,” I replied. “All I have in
then it is no magic that 2 + 2 is always 4. You edge cannot be reduced to a stock of retriev- mind is how do you get that x?”
could only get a different result if you sud- able ‘facts’ but concerns the ability to compute J was so fixed on getting the exact number
denly started counting, ‘1, 2, 7, 6’ instead of new results. To use Piaget’s terms, it is opera- as a result, that it never occurred to him to
the normal order, thus breaking an accepted tive rather than figurative. It is the product of say something like “The puppy weighs 54
rule. In that case 2 + 2 would be 6.” reflection – and whereas reflection as such is divided by 9, whatever that is.” Instead, he
von Foerster: “That would be like playing not observable, its product may be inferred questioned his whole approach thinking he
chess and moving the threatened king two from observable responses” (Glasersfeld had “screwed up somewhere.” I asked him
squares instead of one. Then you would be 1987, p. 10). Operative knowledge is con- why he hated word problems. He replied,
stepping out of the game.” structive. “It is not the particular response “Because they make me feel stupid.” How? I
von Glasersfeld: “Yes – and if my opponent that matters but the way in which it was inquired. “Well, if I don’t get an immediate
explained why this is so, then I would discover arrived at” (Glasersfeld 1987, p. 11). answer, I feel stupid. It is stuff I should know.
that I broke a rule. This also shows that it is the But how is the student to attain such oper- It is expected of me.” Jeff went on to talk
rules that determine when my king is in ative knowledge in mathematics, when the about the time when he came to hate word
check-mate. We don’t invent this during the “structure of mathematical concepts is still problems. He never understood what the
game ….” largely obscure” (Glasersfeld 1987, p. 13)? teacher did in class – he failed to see any pat-
von Foerster: “In mathematics this is of Most definitions in mathematics are formal tern in these word problems. The teacher
course the same – here the rules imply a vari- rather than conceptual. In mathematics, defi- had them solve word problems either under
ety of things that one could not easily have nitions “merely substitute other signs or sym- time pressure or at the board, in front of the
predicted.” bols for the definiendum. Rarely, if ever, is entire class. He felt threatened and never
von Glasersfeld: “Piaget has this nice exam- there a hint, let alone an indication, of what actually got over it.
ple where a child first finds out that it makes one must do in order to build up the concep- There is a general agreement across the
no difference whether he counts eight mar- tual structures that are to be associated with constructivist research in mathematics edu-
bles placed in a circle clockwise or counter- the symbols. Yet, that is of course what a stu- cation that for consistent understanding to
clockwise. It always amounts to 8. And Piaget dent has to find out if he or she is to acquire a happen, new knowledge has to attach to stu-
puts it very nicely that this 8 is not a perceived new concept” (Glasersfeld 1987, p. 14). dents’ prior experiences. But just what kind of
fact, but the result of rule-based actions. As To illustrate this point, let us look at an prior experiences? Which ones are optimal for
long as we perform these actions according to example. While talking about my research to new learning? How can a teacher behave in a
the rules, we come to the result determined by J, a doctoral student in Computer Science in way as to resurrect those experiences? What

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are resource states of learning? How are atten- Many people argue that they do not think rience. However, if we intend to communicate
tional units of those states configured? How in images, but rather in words or abstract sym- in a holistic manner engaging all of our senses,
can a teacher know when she is eliciting an bols. But “most of the words we use in our we need to also honor other ways of knowing.
un-useful experience? Even though people’s inner speech, before speaking or writing a sen- “For the constructivist teacher – much like the
subjective experiences are private, can stu- tence, exist as auditory or visual images in our psychoanalyst – ‘telling’ is usually not an
dents and teachers come to share a language consciousness. If they did not become images, effective tool. In this role, the teacher is much
of experience? How? however fleetingly, they would not be any- less a lecturer, and much more of a coach (as
thing we could know” (Damasio 1994, p. 106). in learning tennis, or in learning to play the
Damasio (1994) goes as far as to require as piano). A recent slogan describes this by say-
Making sense of math – an essential condition for having a mind the ing ‘the Sage on the Stage has been replaced by
ability to form internal (visual, auditory, the Guide on the Side.’ It is the student who is
literally! kinesthetic) images, and to order them in the doing the work of building or revising [… his
These and similar questions have guided my process we call thought. His view is that “hav- or her] personal representations. The student
work in the last two decades, helping me set ing a mind means that an organism forms builds up the ideas in his or her own head, and
research goals such as exploring the relation- neural representations which can become the teacher has at best a limited role in shaping
ship between mathematical knowledge and images, be manipulated in a process called the student’s personal mental representa-
the subjective experience it gets attached to in thought, and eventually influence behavior tions. The experiences that the teacher pro-
the process we call understanding. by helping predict the future, plan accord- vides are grist to the mill, but the student is the
While holding a constructivist epistemol- ingly, and choose the next action” (p. 90). miller” (Davis & Maher 1997, p. 94).
ogy, I have been able to facilitate successful Sensory images are often referred to as The holistic, constructivist view presup-
mathematics understanding in my students “mental representations” – a term that, as von poses that the teacher should have the poten-
by using a shared experiential language (SEL) Glasersfeld (1987) explains, can be quite mis- tial to attend to all aspects of sensory experi-
that allows a direct, two-way communication leading: “In the constructivist view, ‘concepts,’ ence and communication both in herself and
between the teachers and students. SEL is ‘mental representation,’ ‘memories,’ ‘images,’ in the student’s system. In addition to audi-
based on NLP models and comprises catego- and so on, must not be thought of as static but tory-verbal aspects, visual and kinesthetic
ries of subjective experience such as sensory always as dynamic; that is to say, they are not experience may also be privileged, with both
(see-hear-feel) modalities, submodalities, conceived as postcards that can be retrieved unconscious (tacit) and conscious communi-
sensory strategies, and behavioral cues, as from some file, but rather as relatively self- cation and perception considered. When
well as ways for the teachers to separate stu- contained programs or production routines teachers are (implicitly) trained to ignore
dent’s meanings from their own (Hale-Haniff that can be called up and run (cf. Damasio’s communications related to intra-personal,
& Pasztor 1999; Hale-Haniff 2004; Pasztor 1994 dispositional representations). Concep- emotional, and unconscious experience, we
2004b). tions, then, are produced internally. They are are imparting positivist principles. Most of us
replayed, shelved, or discarded according to have been socialized largely according to pos-
their usefulness and applicability in experien- itivist thinking, conceptualizing emotions as
Sensory modalities:The tial contexts. The more often they turn out to sudden and intense experiences that come
be viable, the more solid and reliable they and go at certain times; something that a sane
see/hear/feel building seem. But no amount of usefulness or reliabil- or balanced person learns to keep under con-
blocks of our experience ity can alter their internal, conceptual origin. trol so that rational thinking and control can
They are not replicas of external originals, prevail. On the other hand, the holistic, con-
According to Damasio (1994), at each simply because no cognitive organism can structivist view depicts emotional experience
moment in time our subjective experience is have access to ‘things-in-themselves’ and thus as ongoing, simultaneous with and support-
manifested in what he calls an “image”: a there are no models to be copied” (p. 219). ive of, the rest of experience.
visual image, that is, an internal picture; an Kinesthetic experience is ever-present
auditory image, that is, sounds – discrete or (although not always consciously accessible)
analog; a kinesthetic image, that is, a feeling or How constructivism in form of “body images.” “By dint of juxtapo-
an internal smell or taste; or a combination of sition, body images give to other images a
these. For example, while J’s representation of
honors other ways of quality of goodness or badness, of pleasure or
“even number” is manifested in a fuzzy visual knowing and pain. I see feelings as having a truly privileged
image of the number two, accompanied by “a status… [F]eelings have a say on how the rest
feeling of 2ness,” and my own representation
communicating of the brain and cognition go about their
is a sharp visual image of “2n,” written in Positivist methodology privileges auditory- business” (Damasio 1994, pp. 159–160).
white on a blackboard and situated right in verbal communication, often to the exclusion It is important to note that experience that
front of me, my friend Mary represents “even of other modalities. Thus we teach the ver- is kinesthetic to one person (e.g., the student)
number” by hearing the actual definition of bally oriented conscious mind, and often is accessible primarily visually to the other
“even number.” ignore visual and kinesthetic aspects of expe- (e.g., the teacher). For example, as the student

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educational radical constructivism

feels his or her face get hot, the teacher might tion: “As part of a math problem involving tri- strategy with a few examples from a pilot
notice him blush. Or, as the student feels a angles, an abstract triangle occurs first as a project I conducted in the academic year
sense of pride welling up in him, the teacher fuzzy shape without any material ‘body.’ It 1999–2000 with a class of fourth graders with
might notice him taking a deep breath as he doesn’t have a surface; not even a clear bound- the aim of teaching them SEL and through it,
squares his shoulders. Thus learning to detect ary. Its size is also changing between a couple awareness of their mental processes while
new categories of sensory experience in one- of inches to one or two feet. It is quite far from solving math problems.
self and others involves enhancing perception my face and its distance is unspecific but it is Ramon chose the following problem to
of new categories of both kinesthetic and still in the room. As a consequence, its shape, solve: Which measure is the best estimate to
visual experience. Becoming more con- size, and location can easily be manipulated. describe the length of the salamander below
sciously aware of categories of sensory experi- As it is manipulated, such as made equilateral (picture followed text)? Circle the best estimate:
ence other than auditory-verbal, the teacher or rotated, these parameters change rapidly. 3 inches 3miles 3 pounds.
enhances her ability to accommodate to the The boundary becomes more defined, the size Here is what he reported: “What I did was
students’ experiences. concrete, and the distance fixed. It still picture a huge ruler in front of my face and I
remains, however, a line-drawing without a saw the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,… I looked at the
body or surface. It is always a colorless figure, picture [in the book] and compared it with 3
Submodalities: either gray or black and white.” In contrast, inch and it was right. Besides, pounds is
for my husband imagining an emergency tri- weight and miles is larger than inch.”
Refining the see/hear/ angle on the road propped up behind a car “is Kevin’s strategy for implementing a pat-
feel building blocks a vivid picture with concrete shape, thickness, tern is also quite remarkable. I asked the class
material, etc. It is red with white edges in flu- to multiply 1 × 1 (= 1), 11 × 11 (= 121), 111 ×
Each sensory modality is designed to ‘per- orescent colors set against the gray asphalt 111 (= 12321), and 1111 × 1111 (= 1234321).
ceive’ certain basic qualities called submodal- background. I see it at a distance of 10 feet in Then I asked them to continue the pattern.
ities, of the experience it represents (Bandler life size, that is, the same size I would probably Kevin reported the following for calculating
& MacDonald 1988; Pasztor 1998; Hale-Han- see it driving by and looking at it from this 11111 × 11111: “First I looked, then [knock-
iff & Pasztor 1999). Visual submodalities refer same distance. I feel some anxiety in my stom- ing with his left hand on his head just above
to qualities such as: location in space, relative ach as I probably connect this picture uncon- his left ear] I heard ‘tap, tap-tap, tap-tap-tap,
size, hues of color or black and white, pres- sciously with a car break-down or an acci- tap-tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap-tap-tap, and
ence or absence of movement, rhythm, degree dent.” then back down tap-tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap,
of illumination, degree of clarity or focus, flat tap-tap, tap.” He followed this by writing
or three-dimensional; associated or dissoci- 123454321.
ated (seeing oneself in the image, or viewing Sensory strategies: We each have our strategies in terms of
from a fully associated position). Auditory what we see, hear, or feel, of getting out of bed
submodalities refer to qualities such as loca-
sequences of see/hear/ in the morning, multiplying two numbers,
tion, rhythm, relative pitch, relative volume, feel blocks leading to a deciding when to buy gas, or knowing that
content: voice, music, noise. Kinesthetic sub- something is right. For example, Melanie in
modalities include such qualities as: location
particular outcome my pilot project repeatedly demonstrated a
of sensations, presence or absence of move- Our thought processes are organized in distinct problem solving strategy that lets her
ment (and if moving, the physical locations of sequences of images that have become consol- know that the result “is right.” Let us look, for
sequential sensations), the type of sensations: idated into functional units of behavior lead- example, how she solved the following multi-
temperature, pressure, density, duration, ing to a particular outcome and often exe- ple choice problem: Alana entered the county
moisture, pervasiveness of body area cuted below the threshold of consciousness. spelling bee. She spelled 47 words correctly
involved, sense of movement and accelera- They are called sensory strategies (Dilts et al. before she made a mistake. If she had spelled
tion, changes in direction and rotation. 1980) Each image triggers another image or a three more words correctly, she would have
Submodalities are distinctions that sepa- sequence of images. For example, you hear X’s spelled twice as many words as last year. How
rate experiences from one another. As such, name, this triggers your remembering X’s many words did she spell correctly last year? A.
their significance comes to bear only when we face, close up, somewhat distorted, and pink- 25 B. 27 C. 32 D. 35
contrast submodalities of images that repre- ish red, which, in turn, triggers a negative feel- Here is how Melanie explained her solu-
sent different experiences. To illustrate this, ing. Over time, each image or sequence of tion (in terms of what she saw, heard or felt)
let us look at the submodalities of different images comes to serve as a stimulus that auto- in her homework: “I added each number to
experiences of my husband, specifically at matically triggers other portions of the per- itself and 25 + 25 = 50. The problem says 47
how different contexts are manifested in com- ceptual or recalled experience it represents. then + 3 = 50. I did not feel anything but in
pletely different sets of submodalities. My The creation of such triggers happens my head I saw 47 + 3 = 50. I also saw that 50
husband is an architect and he is quite profi- through learning and depends on various was really gold and yellow and it was blinking
cient in geometry. First, here is what he complex subjective, social, cultural and other and heard it beep. Beep, beep, beep, beep it
reports regarding his experience of abstrac- factors. I will illustrate the idea of sensory sounded really fast and loud. My head was

2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 103

educational radical constructivism

here [smiley face] and the numbers were here By also attending to process rather than only problem down to size” (visual); “This is an
[smiley face below the first smiley face, shifted to content, the teacher can detect order or pat- unheard of solution,” “It has a nice ring to it”
to the right, suggesting that she saw them in tern, using other ways of knowing besides or “He talks in circles” (auditory); and “It feels
front, somewhat to the side]. The numbers rational logic, such as attending to physiolog- right,” “The solution hit me” or “This is hot
were that big. The other numbers were black ical and language cues. stuff ” (kinesthetic), as an expression of peo-
besides 50. The numbers were very clear. I saw Although sensory experience is simulta- ple’s sensory experiences (Bandler & Mac-
the numbers for about a minute. I saw the neously available to all senses, people attend Donald 1988; Pasztor 2004b).
numbers after the question. I saw the num- to various aspects of see-hear-feel experience Most often, we do not need training to
bers in numbers not letters. The same thing at different times, which is manifested in their understand the language of behavioral cues.
happened with 25 + 25 = 50.” language. For example, let us take the case of For example, if a person is using gross body
In my pilot project, I often asked the kids two children trying to work together on a movements – large motor movements com-
to “try on” each other’s sensory strategies. By mathematics problem. One child does “not pared to fine motor movements – we instinc-
doing so, they were by comparison able to see” what they are supposed to do, while the tively know what the relationship between
gain more awareness of their own strategies. I other states she doesn’t get “a feel” for what level of detail and abstraction in the submo-
was amazed at the ease with which the kids they are supposed to do. In this scenario, dalities of his internal processing is. It would
adopted Melanie’s decision strategy of seeing communication flow is obstructed because be really odd for that person to say, “I got the
the correct answers blink. each child is attending to a different sense sys- details, now give me the big picture.” The
tem, or logical level of experience (Bateson more precise the body language, the more
1972). By noticing this, the teacher can help precise the “chunk size” of information the
Tools for separating the the children translate their experience so it person is processing. We can also tell the high
can be shared and attention can again flow degree of detail by the narrowing of the gaze –
teacher/investigator’s freely. Sensory system mismatches often take it’s almost as if the person was focusing on a
meaning from that of place between teachers and children. For particular area of the fine print as opposed on
example, if a child says, “Your explanation is a diffused thing, like noticing a page or a com-
the student somewhat foggy,” the teacher’s response of puter screen. Duration and intensity of gaze,
Just as cognitive organisms can never match matching the visual system by asking “What coordination of eye and head movements,
their conceptual and sensory organizations of would it take to make it clearer?” might be a head tilt and angle, chin orientation (up,
experience with the structure of an indepen- better fit than the kinesthetic mismatch of “So down and middle) – some of these are access-
dent objective reality because they simply do you feel confused?” ing cues. They might tell us the state that peo-
not have access to any such reality, so can we, People’s sensory strategies are processes ple are in, the configuration of their attention,
teachers, never match the model we have con- that cause “changes in body state – those in level of detail, what they are attending to.
structed of the students’ conceptualizations skin color, body posture, and facial expres- Sometimes people lean their head to one side
and sensory strategies with what actually goes sion, for instance – [which] are actually per- when they are receiving new information, and
on in their head. The best we can do is apply ceptible to and external observer.” (Damasio to another side when it is “a rerun.” Noticing
von Glasersfeld’s principle of fit by constantly 1994, p. 139). These physical reactions are these cues can be very helpful to see that the
calibrating information and feeding it back to important cues for the external observation person is receptive to what we’re saying or
the students to test for accuracy and recogni- and confirmation of people’s sensory strate- when their system is closing down a bit. In the
tion, and accordingly adjusting our models. gies. The primary behavioral elements latter case, how can we shift the way we are
How can we do this? How can we make sure involved are: language patterns, body posture, presenting information so that they open
that we separate our own meanings from accessing cues, gestures, and eye movements back up again?
those of the students? (Dilts et al. 1980; Pasztor 1998; Hale-Haniff & Let us say a person wanted to learn the sub-
For one, while attending to the students, Pasztor 1999). ject area and we noticed their physiology
we, as teachers, can pay attention to the com- Attending to the sense system presup- starting to shut out new information. Being
munication process, not just the content. posed in people’s language is based on the able to map the precise point where they shut
While content generally refers to what is assumption, derived from constructivist ther- down and to figure out what was going on that
talked about, or why it is talked about, process apy case studies and literature, that sensory caused them shut down can be helpful to
refers to the how of the way problems and experience or “the report of the senses” facilitate their getting back in state.
solutions are communicated. Process, or pat- reflects the interaction between body and Awareness of behavioral cues also has the
tern-based distinctions occur at different log- mind, and that one can attend to communi- benefit of dispelling misconceptions that par-
ical levels of communication than content- cation behavior as a simultaneous manifesta- ents and teachers often have about the chil-
based distinctions do (Bateson 1972). Attend- tion of sensory experience. For example, con- dren’s behavior. You have probably heard par-
ing only to content makes it far more likely structivist therapies are particularly ents or teachers say to their children, “The
that the teacher will associate elements of the successful in using linguistic metaphors such answer is not on the ceiling!” while forcing
student’s communications with her own pri- as “That’s a murky argument,” “Things were them to look down on their notebooks when
vate meanings rather than with the student’s. blown out of proportion” or “Shrink the doing their homework or taking a test. In

104 Constructivist Foundations

educational radical constructivism

doing so they inadvertently keep the children tions of SEL, I was able to understand that the
from accessing information visually and kids who had said, “All,” had imagined a thin-
instead lock them into the kinesthetic modal- ner paint that got underneath the cube and Ana Pasztor is Professor of Computer Sci-
ity. This is of particular significance in math- into the cracks between the unit cubes, while ence at Florida International University in
ematics, where visualization is often the key to the ones who felt confused, imagined the Miami. She earned her doctorate in mathe-
solving a problem. You have probably also paint “too” thick and concluded that it my not matics at Darmstadt University, Germany.
heard parents or teachers say to their children cover the cube evenly enough to have whole Presently, she teaches classes in logic, com-
“look at me when I talk to you.” When people unit cubes covered. Ultimately, I was able to puter ethics, and cognitive science. She has
listen, they have a natural tendency to turn separate students’ images of the paint from numerous refereed publications in a wide
their ear toward the sound source, so facing it mine, and thus realize that I had actually spec- range of areas such as abstract algebra, log-
will not come naturally to them. Sometimes ified the problem poorly. ics of programming, artificial intelligence,
we force our children to look at us while we The key to utilizing SEL is to model stu- requirement engineering, design, and more
talk, and then we complain that “you haven’t dents’ subjective experience to help them recently, the structure of subjective experi-
heard a word of what I said, have you?” You amplify successful learning states by bringing ence, cognitive alignment in women in math
have also probably heard parents or teachers them into consciousness, and, if necessary, to and science, and cognitive issues in mathe-
say to their children, “Stand still when I talk to help them shift un-resourceful learning states matics education. Her most recent research
you!” While I do not have much room here to so that they become resourceful.. The premise concerns constructivism as it relates to con-
discuss behavioral cues in much detail, I want is that experiences are like a series of domi- sciousness studies in cognitive science and
to emphasize that being able to recognize noes: the more dominoes are falling, the more pragmatics, as well as the implementation of
their correlation to internal processing might difficult it is to break un-useful learning pat- constructivist principles in the school math-
be a critical tool for helping someone access terns. If we can find the first domino or what ematics classroom. Ana Pasztor is also a
optimal learning states. It may also be all it has knocked down the first domino, so to Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic
takes to categorize a child as “gifted,” as speak, then the person has much more choice Programming (NLP). She has worked on re-
opposed to “at risk.” than when his negative response – be it anger, defining NLP within the constructivist para-
frustration, or helplessness – is real high. It is digm in a way that allows her to embody
much more likely that a student has choice and apply its models in a congruent and
Democratization of while his response to a negative state of learn- consistent way.
ing is still small, and it gives him a sense of
math education: control to be able to change it. Through the mathematics from the students back to those
Utilizing SEL process of modeling students’ experiences we who guide and lead the process of co-con-
can slow down their processing so they are structing knowledge. This, in turn, should
The premise for utilizing SEL is that if the able to gain conscious control over their sen- radically change prevailing beliefs about
teacher embodies the distinctions of subjective sory strategies and thus gain conscious math- who should be studying mathematics and
experience that encompass SEL in her neurol- ematical competence. who should be successful at it: everybody has
ogy and mindfully reflects them in her com- By rooting mathematics understanding access to understanding, not just those who
munication with the students, then she is able in each student’s indi- possess the “math gene” – it should not be
to share the students’ experiences at a deep vidual sensory socially acceptable anymore to fail in mathe-
sensory level and thus she is able to literally experi- matics.
“make more sense” of her students. A some- ences, we
what humorous incident exemplifies this. I are shift-
presented to my pilot project class the follow- ing the Acknowledgements
ing problem: “Imagine a five by five by five responsibil-
cube [made of unit cubes]. Paint is poured ity for success in I gratefully acknowledge the support of the
down over the top and the four sides. How National Science Foundation grant CNS-
many [unit] cubes would 0454211 with the CATE Center at Flor-
have paint on them?” While ida International University. I would
some kids said, “All,” also like to thank Mary Hale-Haniff for
some others felt real con- having accompanied and
fused. Upon eliciting often guided me on my
their see-hear-feel expe- voyage through para-
riences using the distinc- digms.

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References radical constructivism. In: Watzlawick, P. ics. In: English, L. (ed.) Mathematical rea-
(ed.) The invented reality. W. W. Norton & soning. Analogies, metaphors, and
Alacaci, C. & Pasztor, A. (2002) Effects of state Company: New York, pp. 17–40. images. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates:
assessment preparation materials on stu- Glasersfeld, E. von (1987) Learning as a con- Mahwah, NJ, pp. 21–92.
dents’ learning of school mathematics – A structive activity. In: Janvier, C. (ed.) Prob- Lakoff, G. & Nuñez, R. E. (2000) Where math-
study. The Journal of Mathematical lems of representation in the teaching and ematics comes from: How the embodied
Behavior 21: 225–253. learning of mathematics. Lawrence mind brings mathematics into being.
Askey, R. (1999) Why does a negative a nega- Erlbaum: Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 3–18. Basic Books: New York.
tive = a positive? American Educator 23 Glasersfeld, E. von (2004a) Learning, cyber- Lincoln, Y. S. & Guba, E. G. (1985) Naturalis-
(3): 10–11. netics, holograms. Karl Jasper Forum tic inquiry. Sage Publications: Newbury
Bandler, R. & MacDonald, W. (1988). An TA73 R8. Park, CA.
insider’s guide to sub-modalities. Meta Glasersfeld, E. von (2004b) Representation McNeill, R. (1988) A reflection on when I
Publications: Cupertino, CA. and communication. Karl Jasper Forum loved math and how I stopped. Journal of
Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of TA73 R10. Mathematical Behavior 7: 45–50.
mind. Balantine Books: Toronto. Hale-Haniff, M. (2004) Transforming the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of
Damasio, A. R. (1994) Descartes’ error. Gros- meta model of NLP to enhance listening Mathematics) (2000) Principles and stan-
set/Putnam: New York. skills of postmodern family therapy. Dis- dards for school mathematics. http://stan-
Davis, R. B. & Maher, C. A. (1997) How stu- sertation, Nova Southeastern University,
dents think: The role of representations. Graduate School of Humanities and Social Pasztor, A. (1998) Subjective experience
In: English, L. (ed.) Mathematical reason- Sciences. divided and conquered. Communication
ing. analogies, metaphors, and images. Hale-Haniff, M. & Pasztor, A. (1999) Co-con- and Cognition 31 (1): 73–102.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, structing subjective experience: A con- Pasztor, A. (2004a) Radical constructivism
NJ, pp. 93–115. structivist approach. Dialogues in has been viable: On math education and
Dilts, R., Grinder, J., Bandler, R., Bandler, L. & Psychology 16.0. http://hubcap.clem- more. Karl Jasper Forum TA73 C41.
Delosier, J. (1980) Neuro-Linguistic Pro-
gramming, Volume I: The study of the 16.0.html. Pasztor, A. (2004b) Metaphors: A construc-
structure of subjective experience. Meta Hoffman, L. (1990) A constructivist position tivist approach. Pragmatics & Cognition
Publications: Cupertino, CA. for family therapy. In: Keeney, B. P., Nolan, 12 (2): 317–350.
English, L. (1997) Analogies, metaphors, and B. F. & Madsen, W. L. (eds.), The systemic Pasztor, A. & Slater, J. (2000) Acts of align-
images: Vehicles for mathematical reason- therapist. St. Paul: MN, pp. 23–31. ment: Of women in math and science and
ing. In: English, L. (ed.) Mathematical rea- Jung, C. (1962) Erinnerungen, Träume, all of us who search for balance. Peter Lang
soning. analogies, metaphors, and images. Gedanken von C. G. Jung. Recorded and Publishing: New York.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, published by Aniela Jaffé. Rascher Verlag: Pert, C. B. (1997) Molecules of emotion.
NJ, pp. 4–18. Zürich & Stuttgart. Scribner: New York.
Foerster, H. von & Glasersfeld, E. von (1999) Lakatos, I. (1976) Proofs and refutations. The Watzlawick, P. (1984) Components of ideo-
Wie wir uns erfinden: Eine Autobiogra- logic of mathematical discovery. Cam- logical “realities.” In: Watzlawick, P. (ed.)
phie des radikalen Konstruktivismus. bridge University Press: Cambridge, MA. The invented Reality. W. W. Norton &
Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag: Heidelberg. Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy Company: New York, pp. 206–248.
Gergen, K. J. (1991) The saturated self. Basic in the flesh. Basic Books: New York.
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Glasersfeld, E. von (1984) An introduction to foundations for a mind-based mathemat- Accepted: 2 December 2006

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The Epistemic Relativism of Radical

Constructivism: Some Implications
for Teaching the Natural Sciences
Andreas Quale A University of Oslo (Norway) <>

word here is “cognitive”: many of the objec-

Purpose:The relativism inherent in radical constructivism is discussed.The epistemic tions raised against RC arise from a failure to
positions of realism and relativism are contrasted, particularly their different approaches distinguish between cognitive and non-cog-
to the concept of truth, denoted (respectively) as “truth by correspondence” and “truth by nitive knowledge.
context.” I argue that the latter is the relevant one in the domain of science. Thus, the notions of cognition, and of cog-
Findings: Radical constructivism asserts that all knowledge must be constructed by the nitive vs. non-cognitive knowledge, need to be
individual knower.This has implications for teaching, here imagined as a sharing of knowl- clarified. The Oxford English Dictionary
edge between teacher and students: it should be done, not by “reporting the true facts” (1996) defines cognition, rather tersely, as
of whatever is being taught, but rather by “telling a story” about it. An explicit distinction “…knowing, perceiving or conceiving, as an
is made between the notions of cognitive and non-cognitive knowledge. It is argued that act or faculty distinct from emotion and voli-
cognitive knowledge (such as in mathematics and science) is characterised by rules that tion.” Let us expand on this:
can be unambiguously agreed on by actors who choose to “play the game”; and hence such First, to avoid any misunderstanding it
knowledge is directly communicable from the teacher to the students. should be emphasised that the terms “cogni-
Implications: In telling the story of science, the teacher can verify that the students “have tion” and “experience,” as used in this paper,
got it right,” even though they are all constructing their knowledge individually. In contrast, have quite different meanings. Any and all per-
for non-cognitive knowledge (emotion, preferences, belief, …) there are no such unam- ceptions (of outside stimuli) and reflections (on
biguous rules to agree on, and therefore it is not communicable in this way: in telling this such stimuli) would classify as instances of
story, the teacher has no way of verifying that the same knowledge is actually being shared. experience, in this very general sense. The term
Conclusion: Science teaching should be carried out in the mode of story-telling; it does cognition, on the other hand, refers to the
not need an epistemology of realism. mental faculty that we use to construct cogni-
Key words: Relativism, truth, scientific epistemology, science education. tive knowledge out of such experiences. In
other words, we need to distinguish between
our experiential world (the totality of all that
Epistemology Note that these propositions make explicit we experience, at any one moment) and the
reference to cognitive knowledge, and to cog- knowledge that we construct on the basis of our
vs. ontology: nition as the procedure for gaining such experiences: this knowledge can then be of the
knowledge. cognitive kind (of which science is the prime
The role of cognition Proposition #2 is the problematic one; it is example), or it can be non-cognitive.
The theory of Radical Constructivism (RC) frequently interpreted (by the critics) as Cognitive knowledge is based on reason-
has generated considerable controversy implying that learning cannot give us knowl- ing, using rules and procedures that can be
within the philosophy of science and science edge of the real world! It highlights a distinc- agreed on and communicated. (Prime exam-
education. This is to a large extent due to its tion between issues of epistemology (the ples are, of course, science and mathematics.)
position of epistemic relativism, emerging nature of human knowledge) and ontology On the other hand, non-cognitive – some-
from the two fundamental propositions of (existence, or being). Specifically, it maintains times called “affective” or “emotive” – knowl-
this theory put forward by Ernst von Glasers- that ontological knowledge (e.g., about the edge deals with personal experiences that can-
feld (1995): existence of an objective reality) is based on not be communicated: emotion, volition,
1. Knowledge is not passively received, but is preferred belief, and as such is not within the preferences, beliefs, etc. A simple example,
actively built up by the cognizing subject. scope of cognition. It does not deny the possi- illustrating this difference: I can know (cogni-
2. The function of cognition is adaptive, and bility of an objective reality, existing indepen- tively), and communicate to you, how New-
serves the subject’s organization of his/her dently of all subjects, but asserts that it is in ton’s law of gravity operates, and how it
experiential world, not the discovery of an principle not possible to obtain cognitive describes observable features of the Solar Sys-
objective ontological reality. knowledge of such an entity. The operative tem; and I can know (non-cognitively), but

Constructivist Foundations 2007, vol. 2, nos. 2–3 107
educational radical constructivism

not communicate to you, how it feels for me knowledge is a strictly individual enterprise, Note that this distinction makes explicit
to like a particular piece of music. and the knowledge obtained will reside in the reference to the notion of truth. Indeed, much
Let us be a little more specific, to illustrate knower: i.e., the person who is in possession of the criticism against relativism – and thus
this distinction (between cognitive and non- of said knowledge. Note, however, that this also against RC – arises from a perception that
cognitive knowledge) in more detail: A per- individualistic view of knowledge, as con- it, in some sense, “denies truth.” So, let us take
son can experience the act of observing and structed by and residing in the individual a closer look at this notion.
studying a concrete physical process – say, a knower, should not be taken to imply that RC First, a relativist epistemology does not
body falling under gravity. But this experience rejects the social aspects of learning! On the deny the possibility of obtaining knowledge
does not, in itself, constitute cognitive scien- contrary, it is recognised that the construc- of the world. On the contrary, it allows us to
tific knowledge. Such knowledge must be con- tion of knowledge by an individual is always gain such knowledge – generally consisting of
structed by applying the agreed rules of sci- done in a social environment, which will con- both cognitive and non-cognitive elements.
ence: here, measuring times and distances of strain the learning process. One might say The issue here is the truth value of this knowl-
falling, and establishing quantitative relations that the social experiential world, which edge: whether it can be said to be true, in some
between these. And in addition, this activity includes other people, provides an ontological sense.
(of studying falling bodies) can also generate framework for the individual’s construction of Philosophical arguments addressing truth
many kinds of non-cognitive knowledge, knowledge. This is an important issue in RC, values are commonly based on the so-called
such as feelings of satisfaction (on the experi- but it will not be further discussed here; the correspondence theory of truth. This asserts
ence of understanding the scientific content) present paper will focus on the individualistic that a proposition is true if it gives a correct
or frustration (at not getting it right). aspects of learning and knowledge, as indi- description of (some aspect of) the real world.
This raises another question, of impor- cated above. It is then often assumed that knowledge itself
tance for science education. It has been pro- The question then arises: “How is it possi- must imply truth: a proposition p that some-
posed by some authors that non-cognitive ble to communicate and share such individual one knows to be true, has to be true. To avoid
knowledge of this kind is indeed relevant for knowledge – say, between teacher and stu- tautological reasoning, one introduces the
the students, and hence should be included dent, or between scientific co-workers?” As notion of knowledge as “justified true belief ”:
under the heading of science, in the hope of we shall see, this is where the cognitive/non- it is not enough that somebody knows some-
making it more “relevant” and palatable to cognitive distinction becomes important. thing – there must also be some justification
them. Now, this is a matter of educational for believing this knowledge to be true.
strategy – a choice of pedagogical policy, so to This theory raises difficult questions, espe-
speak – and therefore not arguable in scien- Relativism vs. realism: cially when applied to scientific knowledge.
tific terms. So, let me just state my position on For instance, it tends to continually demote
this issue: Science is an ambitious human
The notion of truth past true knowledge, as science evolves with
enterprise, where we use our cognitive abilities RC features an epistemic relativism, rejecting time. Thus, scientists some two centuries ago
to construct knowledge designed to make the idea that cognitive knowledge can have an believed in the phlogiston theory of fire – in
sense of certain parts of our experiential ontological underpinning – that it can be fact, they knew this theory was true. Nowa-
world. Note that this does not disparage the knowledge of an objective reality of some days, however, it is regarded as false, i.e., as not
importance of non-cognitive aspects of kind. And, as we know, the word “relativism” describing the nature of fire correctly. So, it
engaging in scientific activity: the sense of is often used in academic discourse with seems that the knowledge (true belief) of that
wonder, the feeling of relevance and personal strongly negative connotations. time was not really justified. But what then of
involvement, the satisfaction of understand- In the present context, the opposing our present knowledge? Is it true (justified
ing natural processes and using them to make epistemic positions of realism and relativism belief) – or at least more true (more justified)
devices to control our environment, etc. may be described briefly as follows: than previous beliefs were? How can we know
These aspects surely play a large part in both [ Realism asserts that there exists an objec- that a given justification, offered in support of
scientific research and the learning of science. tive physical reality independently of some belief, is in fact good enough? Is scien-
But they should not be conflated with science human observers, and that science can tific knowledge approaching, in some sense,
itself – in very simplistic terms, I am propos- attain true knowledge of this reality – i.e., true knowledge about the universe? How can
ing that it is useful and valuable to maintain a discover an objectively true representation we recognise this true knowledge, if and when
distinction between what is to be learnt and of it. we arrive there? How can we even know when
our various motivations for learning it! [ Relativism asserts that it is not cognitively we are “getting closer” to it?
The defining propositions #1 and #2 imply meaningful to speak of such an objective The issue here is: does the notion of true
that the conception of knowledge in RC is reality. Any piece of knowledge is (and knowledge make sense, as an objective
inherently individualistic: each person must must be) constructed by individuals, for descripton of the world we experience? Here
confront her own experiential world, defined some specific purpose and in some partic- the epistemic positions of realism and relativ-
as the totality of her individual perceptions ular context; and its truth value can then ism give sharply different answers: realism
and reflections, and construct her knowledge only be determined relative to this purpose says yes, while relativism says no! RC, being a
of the world from that. Thus, acquisition of and context. relativist theory, rejects the correspondence

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educational radical constructivism

theory (with its associated notion of justified the learning process of a recipient (the knowledge, until (perhaps) something hap-
true belief), and its conception of objective learner). The teacher has an agenda – to con- pens in the interaction between them that
truth. Instead, it adopts the relativist vey to the learner a certain body of (cognitive leads them to discover that they do not!”
epistemic position of truth by context. This or non-cognitive) knowledge. Hence, con- For this notion of sharing, the distinction
states that a proposition cannot be true or trary to what is often claimed, there is no between cognitive and non-cognitive knowl-
false in itself (i.e., objectively), but only rela- requirement in RC of “learner indepen- edge becomes important. Cognitive knowl-
tive to some given context: a conceptual dence”: while it is true that learners will con- edge (e.g., of science) is based on rules of rea-
scheme, a social group or practice, a personal struct their own knowledge (since that is how soning, as noted above; hence it can be shared,
conviction, … all learning is done), it is the teacher’s task to in the sense that two individuals can agree to
Examples of this abound in mathematics try to guide this process of construction in the “play by the same rules.” Non-cognitive
and science. Consider e.g., this proposition: right direction – and it is the teacher who knowledge, on the other hand, derives from
the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 decides which direction is “right” here! Thus, individual experiences: volition, emotions,
degrees. This is true in Euclidean geometry, the teacher is in possession of a certain body preferences, beliefs, etc.; and here there are no
i.e., in the context of the Euclidean geometric of knowledge that she wants to share with the rules of reasoning to agree on! In this case,
axioms, but false in (say) elliptic geometry, learners. there is no direct sharing of experiences; a
which has a different axiomatic base. Another (Note that it is implicit in this scenario of person can have no idea whether another has
example: The universe is many billions of teaching that the students also possess a cer- the same experience as she has. A simple
years old, as agreed by most scientists today, tain autonomy: they are, in principle, free to example: a believer (in a particular religion)
or only some six thousand years old, as at least accept or reject the insights that the teacher is cannot communicate to another person how
some creationists1 believe. Here both sides inviting them to share with her. Our obliga- it feels to experience this belief. And even
would presumably claim that they know their tion as science teachers is to teach as best we when the two claim to share their faith, they
position to be the correct one – or, at least, to know how: use our ability to empathise with have no way of checking whether they actually
be more correct than that of the other. The the students, present the material in a way do: all they can do is to use the same language,
point is that, from the viewpoint of RC, the adjusted to their level of preknowledge, striv- with words describing the faith, and assume
truth values of the two positions are defined ing for original and “fresh” approaches, etc. that they both “mean the same thing” by those
relative to different contexts; and hence each But even so, we may observe that some stu- words.
of them can lay claim to being true, relative to dents will indeed “fail,” and drop out, for a Returning to the issue of teaching: If
its context. variety of reasons: they find science to be knowledge (of any kind) is of such an individ-
uninteresting, or even unattractive; they feel ual and private character, how can it be
that it is too difficult, and not worth the effort; taught, i.e., conveyed by a teacher to her stu-
Teaching: they decide that they are more interested in dents?
engaging in something else; etc. And this is The answer, as proposed by RC, will
A sharing of knowledge their right; we (the teachers) are not required, depend on the type of knowledge in question.
RC states that each individual learner must or obliged, to force science onto them, if they For cognitive knowledge, the teaching will
construct her own knowledge, without any choose not to accept it!) require demonstrating “the rules of the
objectively defined guidelines for the “right How can individual knowledge of any kind game”: the methodology used to deal with the
way” to do this. Once this is accepted, it is be meaningfully shared between knowers? content matter of this knowledge. The mes-
immediately apparent that one needs to reap- The answer offered by RC is: by personal sage conveyed to the students would then, in
praise the role of the teacher in the educa- interaction, within the framework of a com- effect, be: “These rules govern the material to
tional process. One may even ask, rhetori- mon language. Through a continual process of be studied here; if you want to work in this
cally: Do we really need teachers, in the socialisation into various groups (family field, you must learn them, and play by them.”
traditional sense – i.e., persons with knowl- members, work-place colleagues, fellow stu- (A crude analogy: If you want to become pro-
edge of some topic, who have the responsibil- dents, etc.), each one of us learns to attach ficient at chess, you must learn the rules of this
ity of conveying this knowledge to the learn- meanings to particular words, and to expect game, and practise them by playing often…)
ers? Or, should the “constructivist teacher” that other members of the group will also Science, in particular, is an example of cogni-
just make the relevant material available to attach similar meanings to them. This enables tive knowledge, defined by a certain method-
the learners, and surrender to them the us to interact, communicate and share knowl- ology generally denoted as “scientific”: data,
responsibility of learning – in effect, let them edge, making the tacit assumption that we are hypothetic-deductive reasoning, theoretical
“teach themselves,” by individually construct- “talking about the same thing.” However, this models, observational techniques, computa-
ing their knowledge through a processing of notion of sharing does have limitations: We tional procedures, etc. In this perspective, the
perceived data (which they will do anyway, may discover, in the course of this interaction, teaching of science is about demonstrating sci-
according to RC!) In short: is teaching, in the that we are not “on the same wave length” entific methodology to the students, and
classical sense, even possible in RC? after all, contrary to what we had initially training them in using it.
In general, teaching may be defined as: assumed. In the words of von Glasersfeld Non-cognitive knowledge, on the other
action by an agent (the teacher) to influence (1995): “Two individuals do share their hand, will contain elements that cannot be

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conveyed by such demonstrable rules. As a It is, of course, possible to adopt – as many retrieved in identical form for inspection
concrete example, consider a school of the science teachers do – the epistemic position of later. The question is then: “What is the mean-
performing arts, teaching a course in music realism, that the goal of science is to search for ing of “shareable knowledge,” if we cannot
appreciation. Here there are indeed some rules true knowledge of the world, as a proposition check whether it is really shared?”
to be demonstrated: structural elements such for the students in a science class. But this is The answer, again as proposed by RC, is
as musical scales and schemas of composi- then non-cognitive knowledge: a personally that knowledge may be considered to be
tion, how to play a given instrument, etc. – all preferred belief that the teacher is inviting the shared between two persons only insofar as
examples of cognitive knowledge. But these students to share with her. It does not follow they can agree that they share it. In other
rules cannot by themselves make evident the from the methodology of science. words: they share it until something happens
quality of the music that one is invited to Concerning knowledge, one question that that lets them discover that they do not! To
appreciate – the students cannot be taught, is often asked in the discussion of relativism illustrate, imagine that I am in communica-
solely through using the rules, to enjoy the vs. realism is: “What is it knowledge of?” This tion with another person about some topic of
music! The teacher may feel (i.e., know, non- is a natural question for a realist: to her, common interest to us both. It may then
cognitively) that she enjoys listening to A, but knowledge must be knowledge of something, appear to me that the two of us are in com-
does not care much for B. However, there is no with the implication that this “something” plete agreement on our knowledge of this
way she can communicate the feeling of this exists independently of the knower – an exter- topic – until the other says (or does) some-
preference to the students: i.e., demonstrate nal reality. But a relativist does not think in thing that reveals to me that her understand-
to them that they should also prefer A to B! those categories: RC takes knowledge to be ing of the matter is different from mine! Of
What she can do is tell them about her expe- constructed by the knower, as a model of course, it may be that this never happens; if so,
rience with the music, invite them to listen to (some part of) her experiential world – and I should remain satisfied that the two of us do
it, and try to inspire in them an enjoyment that is all there is to it! The notion of an exter- indeed share this knowledge. The same may
that fits with her description. Now, there is of nal reality, existing independently of human also hold vice versa, for the situation as seen
course nothing wrong with this; much knowl- knowers, simply does not apply! from the other’s point of view; and in that
edge is of a non-cognitive character, and Thus the relativist position is one of instru- case, we should have a mutual sharing of the
hence must be taught in such an “inspira- mentalism: the terms entering into proposi- knowledge.
tional mode.” Still, it does illustrate an impor- tions of knowledge are constructed, with the Loosely speaking, then, we share, to the
tant difference between cognitive and non- goal of obtaining a satisfactory description of extent that we think we do! This statement
cognitive knowledge, in an educational con- the phenomena that are being studied; but the simply serves to highlight the unavoidable
text. question of whether these terms refer to limitation on our capability, as human beings,
Concerning the teaching of science, this “existing objects” is not answerable by cogni- to “know each other’s minds.” In practice, it
can be regarded as the act of demonstrating tive argumentation, and is therefore dis- does not constitute a problem. For instance,
the rules of science and inviting the students missed as cognitively irrelevant. One simple the practitioners of any given academic disci-
to “play the game,” as noted above. However, example: it is generally agreed that the con- pline will for all practical purposes share (in
it should be emphasised that these rules do cepts of electric and magnetic vector fields, and this sense) the established knowledge charac-
not require the epistemic assumption of sci- the Maxwellian field equations that govern terising that discipline – indeed, this mutual
entific realism: that science aspires to find a their behaviour, give a good description of sharing may be taken to provide a working
true description of the natural world. RC various physical phenomena commonly des- definition of the term “established knowl-
advocates a pragmatic view, where the rules of ignated as electromagnetic; but it does not fol- edge.” (For instance, one would not expect
science are presented as chosen by scientists, low that these vectors actually “exist out two scientists, both working within the field
for the purpose of constructing knowledge of there,” as objects to be discovered and studied. of chemistry, to suddenly discover that they
certain phenomena observed in the world, to For one thing, they can be equally well repre- do not have the same understanding of the
answer certain questions that scientists like to sented by other mathematical entities: e.g., by periodic table of elements!)
ask about these phenomena – and then justi- four-dimensional tensors, as is done in rela- Having established the concept of knowl-
fied only by the success of these answers. tivity theory. edge sharing as fundamental in education, we
Another important point: it is not RC states that knowledge (of any kind) now turn to the issue of how such sharing
assumed that these “rules” are manifest and must be constructed individually by each can be attained through the act of teaching.
clear to the students from the start. On the learner. So, the teacher’s dilemma is: how can The question is: “Granted that the teacher
contrary, they are an integral part of the sci- she control this learning process such as to cannot control the learning process going on
ence that is to be learnt. The students are, in make the learners construct the “right” in the minds of her students, how can she at
effect, at the beginning of a long process of knowledge – that which she wants to share least try to influence it – i.e., convey her
knowledge construction, which will (hope- with them? The simple answer is: she cannot knowledge to the learners, to achieve a
fully) lead eventually to a better understand- – there is no way for her to ensure with cer- mutual sharing of it between her and them?”
ing of the various implications of these rules tainty that the learners have “learnt cor- This is, of course, just another version of the
– i.e., to an improved mastery of science rectly”! Knowledge cannot be simply trans- age-old question: “What characterises good
itself! mitted: i.e., imprinted on the learner, to be teaching?”

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Teaching:Telling a story be considered very provocative in most Telling the story of

humanistic and social academic disciplines
The traditional notion of reality, as having an (see, e.g., Phillips 2000). The difference science
absolute and demonstrable existence inde- derives from the epistemic nature of the Recall that in RC, knowledge is regarded as a
pendent of human construction, is rejected knowledge that is being taught. structure that the learner makes (constructs)
by RC – at least, as an ontological basis for On the one hand, it would seem generally and imposes on her experiential world. In par-
cognitive knowledge. Instead, the theory pre- acceptable to say that knowledge within the ticular, science (as defined by its methodol-
fers to speak of “our common experiential humanistic and social disciplines is generated ogy) is seen as a human project to impose
world,” highlighting the basic epistemic and disseminated along the lines of RC: i.e., as structure on certain aspects of the world, in
premise of the theory: that it is precisely this knowledge constructed by individuals, inter- order to better understand and/or control
world that we can experience and obtain cog- acting in (and socially constrained by) their those aspects. As we all know, this project has
nitive knowledge of, not some abstract “real- common environment. For instance, one will been eminently successful: it has given us sta-
ity” hiding behind the scene of our perception generally not be offered definitive and ble, useful and reliable knowledge, offering
and construction. exhaustive answers to questions like: “What hitherto unprecedented understanding and
So, how do we teach it? In other words, are the true merits of Shakespeare’s play Oth- control of our natural environment! How-
how can cognitive knowledge be delivered by ello?” or “What were the true causes of the ever, RC maintains that this knowledge can-
a teacher – i.e., conveyed to, and shared with, First World War?” On the contrary, such not legitimately be considered as (actually or
a learner? The answer of RC is that it should issues would more often be addressed by tell- potentially) “true,” in the sense of reporting
be conveyed in a narrative form: the teaching ing a story: presenting and arguing the merits the correct constitution of the natural world.
of any topic is essentially tantamount to tell- of evidence and viewpoints bearing on the Differently put: scientific knowledge should
ing a story about it! topic of discussion, or criticizing related work not be regarded as a mapping aiming to give a
It should be remarked that this is not a as presented by others – with no pretension of faithful representation of nature; rather, it is
new idea: throughout human history the art having found the “true” or “final” account of like a story, composed and written by scien-
of narration has provided the basic tech- the matter. Differently put: the humanistic tists to describe those aspects of the world that
nique for passing on knowledge of all kinds, and social disciplines tend to feature an epis- they are interested in. In this imagery, then,
whether by word of mouth or in writing. temology of relativism, where knowledge is science teaching is essentially an act of telling
Thus, for whatever content to be taught, the constructed by the learner, with no claim that the story of science. (Of course, this notion of
teacher will: (i) demonstrate the “rules of the it is possible to attain “objectively true knowl- “teaching as story-telling” may be perceived
game” – for instance, a mathematical frame- edge.” by many as being a little vague; a more precise
work (relevant for many sciences), or the On the other hand, the epistemic position formulation would be “teaching as a presen-
system of chromatic scales (relevant for traditionally adopted in the natural sciences tation of presently viable structures describ-
musical composition); and (ii) “tell a story,”2 has been that of realism, with its assumption ing our experiential world.” On the other
using these rules to describe and structure that there exists an objective reality indepen- hand, the metaphor of story-telling is an
the content that is to be conveyed. In deliver- dent of human cognition – with an underly- appealing one; it captures well the spirit in
ing this narrative, the narrator (teacher) ing assumption that a scientific theory can be which all teaching should be done – the shar-
must then rely on the power of a common “right,” in the sense of giving a true or correct ing of knowledge between teacher and stu-
language – imagery, metaphors, cultural description of this reality. It then makes sense dents, for mutual enjoyment.)
connotations, etc. – and (in a school scena- to look for the Final Theory of physics unify- This conception of science, as a story to be
rio, at least) on testing the learners, to check ing all known interactions (Weinberg 1993); told, does not fit in well with an epistemology
whether shared knowledge seems to have and to worry that once we have found the of scientific realism, where one major goal of
been generated. correct theory, the era of interesting scientific science is to find and report the truth. The act
Now, specifically considering science edu- discovery will be over, since we shall then of telling a story may easily be invested with
cation, we ask: How does RC impact on that? have reached the End of Science (Horgan negative significations, such as “making it all
In particular, we address one criticism often 1996). up,” or even outright “lying”! Thus, many sci-
raised against RC in the context of teaching: So, we ask: “How can the teacher provide ence teachers would probably protest strongly
“How can we teach science if we leave the for her students to learn science correctly, if the claim that they are just telling stories:
learners free to construct their knowledge of they are free to construct their knowledge “…that may be how things are done in the arts
it in any way they may fancy? Surely, it is the individually, as claimed by RC? Specifically, and humanities, but certainly not in science;
teacher’s obligation to keep the learners “on how can she share her knowledge of the sub- our task is to teach the students the facts of the
the right track” – to make sure that they learn ject with them, if her mode of delivery is to be real world!” In the relativist epistemology of
science correctly?” that of “telling the story of science” – and then RC, however, scientific knowledge is not
To answer this, we first note that the con- letting them construct from this story what- designed to give a factually true description of
troversial nature of RC is particularly appar- ever they may – instead of informing them of the world, but to provide a successful model of
ent in the natural sciences. The conception of the “correct facts” (laws, observational data, it. Indeed, it may well be argued that the con-
teaching as storytelling would probably not etc.) that constitute science?” structivist (relativist) approach to science

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teaching is actually more realistic than the tra- somewhat authoritarian fashion, with the time. Rather, we should present the advance
ditional approach of realism; the latter relies teacher telling the learners what the world is of scientific knowledge as a progression in the
heavily on purported “facts of the real world,” really like and requiring that they accept this kind of stories we tell about nature. The only
which are in effect fictitious – i.e., mind-inde- as the truth. A story-telling scenario, on the guideline for this progression is that the
pendent metaphysical entities not accessible other hand, leaves more room for the learners knowledge produced should respect the con-
to cognitive knowledge sharing. to form their own images and metaphors, straints imposed by our experiential world,
It may be noted that there are many other develop and present their own ideas, formu- and give satisfactory answers to the questions
stories, constructed to portray various aspects late their own explanations – in short, to con- we ask – i.e., that it must conform to the “rules
of the world. Some are of the academic variety struct their own knowledge. In fact, I would of the game” that determine the form of such
– say, as produced by the humanistic or social propose that one mark of a good storyteller is questions at the time of asking. Indeed, only
disciplines. Others are told (in different that she invites her listeners to join in as the in this (almost tautological) sense is it mean-
media) by writers, artists, performers and story unfolds – i.e., to use their imagination to ingful to speak of today’s science as being
preachers. The crucial point here is that sci- enrich the narrative by giving colour and tex- “more advanced” than yesterday”s: it is better
ence is not to be considered as intrinsically ture to its plot and characters – whether the suited to answer the questions we are asking
more “true” or “correct” than any of these medium of delivery is by word of mouth or of it today!
alternative stories. In this light, even the so- written text. This applies to any kind of story Finally, it is worth noting that the rejection
called pseudo-sciences, such as astrology or that is worth telling: a fairytale, a novel, a play of truth as a valid epistemic category applies
pyramidology,3 are just different stories at the theatre, etc. and I maintain that it also not only to theories of “proper” science, e.g.,
(which we need not accept!) – not being sci- applies to the teaching of science. physics or biology, but also to theories of epis-
ences, they cannot and need not be disproved Note that there is no detailed prescription temology, such as RC itself. Thus, RC should
by scientific arguments, any more than a of how the story is to be told: i.e., whether the not be regarded as being “right” or “wrong,”
fairytale can or needs! (Except, of course, teacher should lecture (or avoid lecturing), in the sense of giving a correct or incorrect
when they make claims that can be tested by whether she should encourage the students to description of its subject matter. Rather, it is
the methods of science – and even then, we work in groups (or engage them in individual (like science) a story told to make a point – and
can only state that the claims are not sup- project assignments), etc. RC does not tell thus successful only to the extent that the lis-
ported by scientific testing.) teachers how to teach. It provides a “back- teners actually feel that the point was worth
Let us elaborate on this second item: sup- ground stage,” as it were, for the act of teach- making!
pose that the biology teacher, in teaching ing: reminding the teacher that she is telling a The position of RC with respect to scien-
about evolution in her class, discovers that story, and calling on her to use whatever tific epistemology, and the teaching of sci-
some of her students are believers in creation- instruments (lecturing, group assignments, ence, may be briefly summed up as follows:
ism. Should she then try to persuade these etc.) she feels are the best suited for “connect- [ Science is, in essence, a powerful and evoc-
students that they are mistaken – that Dar- ing” with her audience. This requires (on the ative story that we tell about the world.
winian evolution gives the correct descrip- part of the teacher) not only a thorough This story is well able to stand on its own
tion, and that the Creation story told in the knowledge of the subject, but also the ability feet; it does not need an “objective reality”
Bible is wrong? The answer, from the view- to empathise with the learners. She must take to support the knowledge that it offers.
point of RC, is: “No, she should not – and into account their preknowledge and precon- [ Teaching science is not intrinsically differ-
indeed she cannot with honesty do so, since ceptions, level of maturity and receptivity, ent from teaching other subjects: the goal
the criteria of being right or wrong do not and attitudes of interest or indifference – and is to convey to the learners a body of share-
apply here!” Her obligation as a biology then use her narrative skills (choice of lan- able knowledge, and the appropriate
teacher is to present to the students the story guage, metaphors, tone of voice, etc.), invit- method of conveyance is then narration,
offered by biological science: the theory of ing them to construct and present their own i.e., telling a story.
evolution, with the arguments and evidence knowledge of what she is trying to tell them,
that support it. If, in the end, the students in such a way as to (hopefully) generate a
decide to stay with their belief in the biblical mutual feeling that this knowledge is shared ABOUT THE AUTHOR
explanation as more satisfactory – well, that is between teacher and learners. In a word, a
their privilege. It is not a teacher’s responsibil- good teacher must be a good story-teller! Andreas Quale is associate professor at the
ity to convert her students to the “true doc- To conclude, RC asserts that science department of Teacher Education and
trine of science.” Or, more succinctly: The should not be taught in the mode of “…pre- School Development at the University of
teacher’s job is to teach, not to preach! viously people thought (erroneously) … but Oslo. In 1974, he received a doctoral
Indeed, this example highlights an essen- now we know (correctly) …” In other words, degree in theoretical physics from the
tial difference between these two conceptions the advance of scientific knowledge should University of Oslo. His present research
of science teaching: the realist “reporting the not be represented as a “progression towards interests include the epistemology of
true facts of the world” vs. the relativist “tell- the truth”; we can never know if and when our science, with particular application to
ing a story to describe the world.” Traditional knowledge has actually reached this state of teaching physics.
science teaching tends to be carried out in a truth, or even how close to it we may be at any

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educational radical constructivism

Postscript RC position on this issue, with a particular tual nature (e.g., the mastery of grammar, for
view to the teaching of science. language studies), or more physical skills
An anonymous referee has raised the following In the approach adopted in the present (e.g., piloting an aircraft). Any such skill may
question: “How do the constructivist princi- paper, the primary aim of science teaching is to then be demonstrated by a teacher, but in the
ples, as outlined in the present paper, apply to generate scientific understanding and knowl- end the students must acquire it themselves,
the teaching of skills involving rote or practical edge in the students. RC recommends that this through personal effort – it cannot be learnt
learning, such as arithmetic, Latin grammar, be done through the medium of story-telling. by demonstration alone.
driving a car, or piloting an airplane?” This is However, in the course of the teaching the stu-
an important issue, and an adequate treatment dents will inevitably discover that they have to
of it would require a separate