Annotationen:An Introduction to Radical Constructivism
In everyday English, that conceptual opposition can be brought out quite clearly by pitting the words “match” and “fit” against one another in certain contexts. The metaphysical realist looks for knowledge that matches reality in the same sense as you might look for paint to match the color that is already on the wall that you have to repair. In the epistemologist’s case it is, of course, not color that concerns him, but he is, nevertheless, concerned with some kind of “homomorphism,” which is to say, an equivalence of relations, sequence, or characteristic structure – something, in other words, that he can consider the same, because only then could he say that his knowledge is of the world.
If, on the other hand, we say that something fits, we have in mind a different relation. A key fits if it opens the lock. The fit describes a capacity of the key, not of the lock. Thanks to professional burglars, we know only too well that there are many keys that are shaped quite differently from ours but nevertheless unlock our doors. The metaphor is crude, but it serves quite well to bring into relief the difference I want to explicate. From the radical constructivist point of view, all of us – scientists, philosophers, laymen, school children, animals, indeed any kind of living organism - face our environment as the burglar faces a lock that he has to unlock in order to get at the loot.This is the sense in which the word “fit” applies to Darwin’s and neo-Darwinist theories of evolution. Unfortunately, Darwin himself used the expression “survival of the fittest.” In doing that, he prepared the way or the misguided notion that, on the basis of his theory, one could consider certain things fitter than fit, and that among those there could even be a fittest. But in a theory in which survival is the only criterion for the selection of species, there are only two possibilities: either a species fits its environment (including the other species), or it does not; i.e., it either survives, or it dies out.
Just a the environment places constraints on the living organism (biological structures) and eliminates all variants that in some way transgress the limits within which they are possible or “viable,” so the experiential world, be it that of everyday life or of the laboratory, constitutes the testing ground for our ideas (cognitive structures). That applies to the very first regularities the infant establishes in its barely differentiated experience, it applies to the rules with whose help adults try to manage their common sense world, and it applies to the hypotheses, the theories, and the so-called “natural laws” that scientists formulate in their endeavor to glean lasting stability and order from the widest possible range of experiences. In the light of further experience, regularities, rules of thumb, and theories either prove themselves reliable or they do not (unless we introduce the concept of probability – in which case we are explicitly relinquishing the condition that knowledge must be certain).
If we take seriously the evolutionary way of thinking, it could never be organisms or ideas that adapt to reality, but it is always reality which, by limiting what is possible, inexorably annihilates what is not fit to live. In phylogenesis, as in the history of ideas, “natural selection” does not in any positive sense select the fittest, the sturdiest, the best, or the truest, but it functions negatively, in that it simply lets go under whatever does not pass the test.
More important still is the epistemological aspect of the analogy. In spite of the often misleading assertions of ethologists, the structure of behavior of living organisms can never serve as a basis for conclusions concerning an “objective” world, i.e., a world as it might be prior to experience. The reason for this, according to the theory of evolution, is that there is no causal link between that world and the survival capacity of biological structures or behaviors. As Gregory Bateson has stressed, Darwin’s theory is based on the principle of constraints, not on the principle of cause and effect. The organisms that we find alive at any particular moment of evolutionary history, and their ways of behaving, are the result of cumulative accidental variations, and the influence of the environment was and is, under all circumstances, limited to the elimination of non-viable variants. Hence, the environment can, at best, be held responsible for extinction, but never for survival.
These considerations fit the basic problem of the theory of knowledge equally well. Quite generally, our knowledge is useful, relevant, viable, or however we want to call the positive end of the scale of evaluation, if it stands up to experience and enables us to make predictions and to bring about or avoid, as the case may be, certain phenomena (i.e., appearances, events, experiences). If knowledge does not serve that purpose, it becomes questionable, unreliable, useless, and is eventually devaluated as superstition. That is to say, from the pragmatic point of view, we consider ideas, theories, and “laws of nature” as structures which are constantly exposed to our experiential world (from which we derived them), and they either hold up or they do not. Any cognitive structure that serves its purpose in our time, therefore, proves no more and no less than just that – namely, given the circumstances we have experienced (and determined by experiencing them), it has done what was expected of it. Logically, that gives us no clue as to how the “objective” world might be; it merely means that we know one viable way to a goal that we have chosen under specific circumstances in our experiential world. It tells us nothing – and cannot tell us anything – about how many other ways there might be, or how that experience which we consider the goal might be connected to a world beyond our experience. The only aspect of that “real” world that actually enters into the realm of experience, are its constraints;
If knowledge is to be a description or image of the world as such, we need a criterion that might enable us to judge when our descriptions or images are “right” or “true.” Thus, with the scenario in which man is born into a ready-made independent world as a “discoverer” with the task of exploring and “knowing” that reality in the truest possible fashion, with this scenario the path of skepticism is there from the outset. The notion of “appearance” and “semblance” which, according to Xenophanes attaches to all human knowledge, was elaborated and applied above all to perception by Pyrrho’s school and, later, by Sextus Empiricus; and the unanswerable question whether, or to what extent, any picture our senses “convey” might correspond to the “objective” reality is still today the crux of all theory of knowledge. Sextus used, among other things, an apple as an example. To our senses it appears smooth, scented, sweet, and yellow – but it is far from self-evident that the real apple possesses these properties, just as it is not at all obvious that it does not possess other properties as well, properties that are simply not perceived by our senses. The question is unanswerable, because no matter what we do, we can check our perceptions only by means of other perceptions, but never with the apple as it might be before we perceive it.
Our main question was how it might come about that we experience a relatively stable and reliable world in spite of the fact that we are unable to ascribe stability, regularity, or any other perceived property to an objective reality. Vico does not answer that question; rather, he makes it superfluous and meaningless. If, as he says, the world that we experience and get to know is necessarily constructed by ourselves, it should not surprise us that it seems relatively stable. To appreciate this, it is necessary to keep in mind that the most fundamental trait of constructivist epistemology, i.e., that the world that is constructed is an experiential world that consists of experiences and makes no claim whatsoever about “truth” in the sense of correspondence with an ontological reality. Hence, Vico’s position is in that respect similar to that of Kant, who says; “Nature, therefore … is the collective conception of all objects of experience.” For Kant, it is the “raw material of sensory impression” which “the mind’s activity ... processes so that it becomes knowledge of objects that we call experience.” In other words, experience as well as all objects of experience are under all circumstances the result of our ways and means of experiencing, and are necessarily structured and determined by space and time and the other categories derived from these
The processing of the raw material in Kant’s system is governed automatically by space and time (without which no experience would be possible) and the other categories which, for that very reason, are called a priori. The a priori, therefore, might be considered the technical description of the organism’s experiential capability. The a priori describes the framework within which such an organism operates, but it does not tell us what the organism does, let alone why it does it. “A priori” is tantamount to “built-in” or “innate,” and Kant’s justification of it leads, albeit in a roundabout fashion, to God and to a Platonic mythology of ideas. In that respect, Vico is more modern and more prosaic. Of the category of causality, for instance, he says: “If true means to have been made, then to prove something by means of its cause is the same as causing it.” This notion (which has been rediscovered, no doubt without any knowledge of Vico, by the modern constructivist mathematicians) has, as Vico realized, a remarkably wide range of application. Causes thus originate in the putting together of individual elements; that is, they originate from an experiencer’s active operating, such that, for instance, “the determinate (i.e., causally determined) form of the object springs from the order and the composition of elements.” Quite generally, that means that the world which we experience is, and must be as it is, because we have put it together that way.
First, there is the realization that knowledge, i.e., what is “known,” cannot be the result of a passive receiving but originates as the product of an active subject’s activity. This activity is, of course, not a manipulating of “things in themselves,” i.e., of objects that could be thought to possess, prior to being experienced, the properties and the structure which the experiencer attributes to them. We therefore call the activity that builds up knowledge “operating,” and it is the operating of that cognitive entity which, as Piaget has so succinctly formulated, organizes its experiential world by organizing itself. Epistemology thus becomes the study of how the mind operates, of the ways and means it employs to construct a relatively regular world out of the flow of its experience.
If, however, as Alcmaeon already suggested, the human activity of knowing cannot lead to a certain and true picture of the world but only to conjectural interpretation, then that activity can be viewed as the creating of keys with whose help man unlocks paths towards the goals he chooses. That means that the second question we asked at the end of the preceding section, namely, why a cognitive activity should take place, is inextricably connected with the first one: because the success of a key does not depend on finding a lock into which it might fit, but solely on whether or not it opens the way to the particular goal we want to reach.
Constructivism necessarily begins with the (intuitively confirmed) assumption that all cognitive activity takes place within the experiential world of a goal-directed consciousness. Goal-directedness, in this context has, of course, nothing to do with goals in an “external” reality. The goals that are involved here arise for no other reason than this: a cognitive organism evaluates its experiences, and because it evaluates them, it tends to repeat certain ones and to avoid others. The products of conscious cognitive activity, therefore, always have a purpose and are, at least originally, assessed according to how well they serve that purpose.
No one uses these conceptual possibilities more skillfully than the professional magician. During a performance he may, for instance, request a spectator’s ring, toss another ring across the room to his assistant, and then let the stunned spectator find his ring in his own coat pocket. The magic consists in directing the spectators’ perception in such a way that they unwittingly construct an individual identity between the first experience of the ring and the experience of the thrown object. Once that has been done, it would, indeed, require magic to transfer the ring from the assistant to the spectator’s pocket. Another case is that of the red ribbon which the magician cuts into little pieces and then – literally with a flick of his hand – produces once more as one whole piece.
A similar, often cited example, is the movie film which, depending on the conditions of perception, we see as a sequence of individually different images or as one continuously moving image. Irrespective of any “real” horse that may or may not have trotted somewhere at some time and been filmed while doing so, when the film is presented to us, we ourselves must construct the motion by constituting a continuous change of one horse from the succession of images. The fact that we do that unconsciously can not alter the fact that we have to do it in order to perceive the motion. No less constructed are the judgments of sameness and difference in the realm of perceptual objects. As I indicated above, “sameness” is always the result of an examination with regard to specific properties. Two eggs may be considered the same because of their shape, size, or color, or because they come from the same hen; but there will be a pungent difference between them if one was laid yesterday and the other six weeks ago. A fieldmouse and an elephant are different in many ways, but they will be considered the same whenever we want to distinguish mammals from other animals. Finally, all eggs, all animals, and indeed all objects that I have ever seen or imagined, are the same in that one respect that I have isolated them as bounded, unitary objects in the total field of my experience. In these cases, as in all conceivable ones, it should be clear that the criteria by means of which sameness or difference is established are criteria that are created and chosen by the judging, experiencing subject and cannot be ascribed to an experiencer-independent world.For an understanding of radical constructivism it is even more important to appreciate the subject’s active operating that gives rise to regularities and invariances in the experiential world. Both regularity and constancy presuppose repeated experience, and repetition can be established only on the basis of a comparison that yields a judgment of sameness. Sameness, however, as we have seen, is always relative: Objects, and experiences in general, are the “same” with respect to the properties or components that have been checked in a comparison. Hence, an experience that consists, for instance, of the elements a, b, and c, can be considered the same as an experience consisting of a, b, c, and x, as long as x is not taken into account.
Indeed, one need not enter very far into constructivist thought to realize that it inevitably leads to the contention that man – and man alone – is responsible for his thinking, his knowledge and, therefore, also for what he does. Today, when behaviorists are still intent on pushing all responsibility into the environment, and sociobiologists are trying to place much of it into genes, a doctrine may well seem uncomfortable if it suggests that we have no one but ourselves to thank for the world in which we appear to be living.
The epistemological problem – how we acquire knowledge of reality, and how reliable and “true” that knowledge might be – occupies contemporary philosophy no less than it occupied Plato. The ways and means of the search for solutions have, of course, become more varied and complicated, but the basic question has, almost without exception, remained the same. The way that question was put at the very beginning made it impossible to answer, and the attempts that have since been made could not get anywhere near a solution to the problem.
In the history of knowledge, as in the theory of evolution, people have spoken of “adaptation” and, in doing so, a colossal misunderstanding was generated.
By taking for granted that knowledge must reflect reality traditional epistemology has created for itself a dilemma that was as inevitable as it was unsolvable.
In traditional theories of knowledge, the activity of “knowing” is taken as a matter of course, an activity that requires no justification and functions as an initial constituent. The knowing subject is conceived of as a “pure” entity in the sense that it is essentially unimpeded by biological or psychological conditions. The radical constructivist epistemology quite deliberately breaks that conventional framework and commits what professional philosophers, more or less disparagingly, dismiss as “psychologism.” The deliberations that have led me to this somewhat iconoclastic step derive from what was said in the first two sections as soon as one considers them jointly.
That is precisely what constructivism intends to say – but it says a good deal more. We build that world for the most part unawares, simply because we do not know how we do it. That ignorance is quite unnecessary. Radical constructivism maintains – not unlike Kant in his Critique – that the operations by means of which we assemble our experiential world can be explored, and that an awareness of this operating (which Ceccato in Italian so nicely called consapevolezza operativa) can help us do it differently and, perhaps, better.
The philosopher of science, Hilary Putnam, has recently formulated it like this: “It is impossible to find a philosopher before Kant (and after the pre-Socratics) who was not a metaphysical realist, at least about what he took to be basic or unreducible assertions.” Putnam explains that statement by saying that, during those 2,000 years, philosophers certainly disagreed in their views about what really exists, but their conception of truth was always the same, in that it was tied to the notion of objective validity. A metaphysical realist, thus, is one who insists that we may call something “true” only if it corresponds to an independent, “objective” reality.
On the whole, even after Kant, the situation did not change. There were some who tried to take his Critique of Pure Reason seriously, but the pressure of philosophical tradition was overwhelming. In spite of Kant’s thesis that our mind does not derive laws from nature, but imposes them on it, most scientists today still consider themselves “discoverers” who unveil nature’s secrets and slowly but steadily expand the range of human knowledge; and countless philosophers have dedicated themselves to the task of ascribing to that laboriously acquired knowledge the unquestionable certainty which the rest of the world expects of genuine truth. Now as ever, there reigns the conviction that knowledge is knowledge only if it reflects the world as it is.
As Gregory Bateson has stressed, Darwin’s theory is based on the principle of constraints, not on the principle of cause and effect.
or, as Warren McCulloch, one of the first cyberneticists, so dramatically said: “To have proved a hypothesis false is, indeed, the peak of knowledge.”
Radical constructivism, thus, is radical because it breaks with convention and develops a theory of knowledge in which knowledge does not reflect an “objective” ontological reality, but exclusively an ordering and organization of a world constituted by our experience. The radical constructivist has relinquished “metaphysical realism” once and for all, and finds himself in full agreement with Piaget, who says: “Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself.”
For Piaget, organization is always the result of a necessary interaction between conscious intelligence and environment, and because he considers himself primarily a philosopher of biology, he characterizes that interaction as “adaptation.” With that, too, I agree - but after what was said in the preceding pages about the process of evolutionary selection, it should be clear that the adaptive fit must never be interpreted as a correspondence or homomorphism. With regard to the basic question, how cognitive structures or knowledge might be related to an ontological world beyond our experience, Piaget’s position is somewhat ambiguous. Frequently, one has the impression that, in spite of his massive contributions to constructivism, he still has a hankering for metaphysical realism. In that, of course, he is not alone. Donald Campbell, who has provided an excellent survey of proponents of “evolutionary epistemology” since Darwin, writes: “The controversial issue is the conceptual inclusion of the real world, defining the problem of knowledge as the fit of data and theory to that real world.” In his conclusion he then declares that the evolutionary epistemology, which he and Karl Popper represent, “is fully compatible with an advocacy of the goals of realism and objectivity in science.” But the theory of which he provided an extremely lucid exposition, points in the opposite direction.
Already Xenophanes, one of the earliest of the pre-Socratics, said that no man has ever seen certain truth, nor will there ever be one who knows about the gods and the things of the world, “for if he succeeds to the full in saying what is completely true, he himself is, nevertheless, unaware of it; opinion (seeming) is fixed by fate upon all things.”
As Maturana has made particularly clear; “The a priori assumption that objective knowledge constitutes a description of that which is known … begs the questions, ‘What is to know? and How do we know?’.”
Sextus used, among other things, an apple as an example. To our senses it appears smooth, scented, sweet, and yellow – but it is far from self-evident that the real apple possesses these properties, just as it is not at all obvious that it does not possess other properties as well, properties that are simply not perceived by our senses.
The skeptic’s argument made the philosopher’s life difficult for some 2,000 years. Then Kant added a second, even more troublesome argument. By considering space and time aspects of our way of experiencing, he shifted them out of reality into the realm of the phenomenal, and in doing so, he made questionable not only the sensory properties but also the thinghood of the apple. Thus, not only the apple’s smoothness, scent, sweetness, and color are doubtful, but we can no longer be sure that there actually exists an object such as we experience it, separated from the rest of the world as a unitary whole or “thing.”
This second doubt is, indeed, more serious in its consequences than that concerning the reliability of our senses; it undermines any representation of objective structure in the real world and, thus, inevitably raises the question why and, above all, how it comes about that we search for and can also find a structure in our experiential world, when such a structure may not be given by reality. In other words, if Kant’s statement is correct and our experience can teach us nothing about the nature of things in themselves, how, then, can we explain that we nevertheless experience a world that is in many respects quite stable and reliable?
That is the main question which radical constructivism attempts to deal with, and the answer it suggests was prepared, at least in its main lines, by Giambattista Vico in 1710, more than half a century before Kant:As God’s truth is what God comes to know as he creates and assembles it, so human truth is what man comes to know as he builds it shaping it by his actions. Therefore science (scientia) is the knowledge (cognitio) of origins, of the ways and the manner how things are made.
For us, the important difference between Vico and Berkeley, as well as later idealists, is that Vico considers man’s rational knowledge and the world of rational experience simultaneous products of man’s cognitive construction. Thus Vico’s “knowledge” is what, today, we might call an awareness of the operations that result in our experiential world. Though Berkeley says “that all the choir of heaven and furniture of earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, their being is to be perceived or known,” and thus presupposes the activity of the intellect, his accent always lies on the being, whereas Vico invariably stresses human knowledge and its construction. There can be no doubt that Vico’s explicit use of facere, his constant reference to the composing, the putting together and, in short, the active construction of all knowledge and experience come very much closer to Piaget’s genetic epistemology and to modern constructivism in general, than did Berkeley. Nowhere does that become clearer than in a statement with which Vico anticipated the epistemological attitude of some of today’s philosophers of science: “Human knowledge is nothing else but the endeavor to make things correspond to one another in shapely proportion.”
Hence, Vico’s position is in that respect similar to that of Kant, who says; “Nature, therefore … is the collective conception of all objects of experience.” For Kant, it is the “raw material of sensory impression” which “the mind’s activity ... processes so that it becomes knowledge of objects that we call experience.”
The processing of the raw material in Kant’s system is governed automatically by space and time (without which no experience would be possible) and the other categories which, for that very reason, are called a priori. The a priori, therefore, might be considered the technical description of the organism’s experiential capability. The a priori describes the framework within which such an organism operates, but it does not tell us what the organism does, let alone why it does it. “A priori” is tantamount to “built-in” or “innate,” and Kant’s justification of it leads, albeit in a roundabout fashion, to God and to a Platonic mythology of ideas. In that respect, Vico is more modern and more prosaic. Of the category of causality, for instance, he says: “If true means to have been made, then to prove something by means of its cause is the same as causing it.” This notion (which has been rediscovered, no doubt without any knowledge of Vico, by the modern constructivist mathematicians) has, as Vico realized, a remarkably wide range of application.
Causes thus originate in the putting together of individual elements; that is, they originate from an experiencer’s active operating, such that, for instance, “the determinate (i.e., causally determined) form of the object springs from the order and the composition of elements.”
While the way in which that composition takes place is determined by the a priori for Kant, there are no immutably built-in principles in Vico’s system that determine our ways of experiencing, thinking, and constructing. Instead, such constraints as we encounter spring from the history of our construction, because at any moment whatever has been done limits what can be done in the future.
The function of the mind, however, has always been a matter that interested psychology – and the more emphasis that is put on active operating the more psychological the investigation becomes. If, besides, a developmental view is taken and phylogenetic or ontogenetic concepts are applied, we are decidedly in the area of “genetic epistemology,” an area which metaphysical realists take great pains to avoid, because in their view the theory of knowledge must on no account be adulterated by biological or psychological considerations.
Hume’s argument describes the situation perfectly: “For all Inferences from Experience suppose, as their Foundation, that the future will resemble the past … If there be any Suspicion, that the Course of Nature may change, and that the past may be no Rule for the future, all Experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no Inferences or Conclusions.” This belief is inherent in everything that we consider alive.
As Piaget has shown, the concepts of equivalence and individual identity are not given a priori (innate) but have to be built up; and every “normal” child does, in fact, build them up within the first two years of life.