Text:Hans G. Furth – Not Radical enough: A critique of von Glasersfeld’s Radical Epistemology

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Hans G. Furth – Not Radical enough: A critique of von Glasersfeld’s Radical Epistemology

((1)) The proposed theory of knowledge is critical of what philosophers used to call “realism,” or more recently, what Marxists referred to as “crude empiricism.” Human knowledge is not, so von Glasersfeld’s (1998) radical theory would have it, a “mirror” or a “re-presentation” of reality but a constructed “model” of reality; this model, moreover, can never attain the Status of an absolute (ontic) truth (57). However, with von Glasersfeld’s consistent focus on perception of “something that is already there” (1), he as well as “realists” and most others assume that there is something like a “brute reality,” independent of the human observer or agent.

((2)) In my Interpretation of Piaget’s theory, we cannot meaningfully talk of “reality” as something apart from us and our construction. The true radicalness of Piaget is his proposition that we construct not merely our knowledge and our Instruments of knowledge, but that we construct our reality (e.g„ Piaget’s Construction of reality in the child, originally published 1937). In Piaget’s theory the term “construction” literally means newness and creation. Thus, an apt model for a truly radical constructive theory would be to think of the relation between Bach and the Goldberg Variations, or (to take a less unique example) children and their cooperative make-believe play. These are instances, I would think, where we can evaluate the radicalness of a constructivist epistemology.

((3)) I would grant that Piaget failed to fully enlarge on this insight and that be labored all his life to have a self-contained logical/cognitive theory of knowledge and knowledge development, “Equilibration” became for Piaget the key concept as the motor of development. To make it work he, just as von Glasersfeld (37), had to assume an innate tendency toward an internal balance.

((4)) Consider von Glasersfeld’s description of primitive humans observing the physical world (5) and his Suggestion that unexpected results (35) and Chance mutations (26)&(29) are the motor of development. All this falls short of Piaget’s own constructive model. Many years ago Piaget argued vehemently against “chance” as an explanatory concept and in its place thought of “occasion” or “opportunity.” In any case, in today’s evolutionary Science the concept of chance mutations no longer seems to play the decisive role as it did then.

((5)) I am surprised that von Glasersfeld, as so many others, associates Piaget’s “assimilation” with stability (33) and “accommodation” with newness (35)&(37). This is almost the opposite of what Piaget means with these concepts! Similarly, I find it insufficient that he quotes Piaget’s equilibration concept without adding Piaget's adjective “majorante.” However you translate this word (“enlarging,” “growing”), it dramatically changes the meaning into almost the opposite of a mechanical balance. No wonder, it is not a helpful concept.

((6)) The Suggestion that in humans “equilibration” rather than “survival” has become the criterion of adaptation (27) shows again von Glasersfeld’s narrow focus on cognition and the uncritical assumption of a pre-given reality that we “perceive" and “observe” (31)&(32).

((7)) E. von Glasersfeld’s notions of “protospace” (47) and “prototime” (48) seem to me intriguing allusions to Piaget's sensorimotor schemes, even as the distinction between recognition and recall (50) parallels Piaget’s differentiation between sensorimotor and mental object know-how. I agree with von Glasersfeld (51) that the clearest instance of the construction of a mental object is the formation of an internal image or a symbol.

((8)) Nevertheless, by never clearly referring to sensorimotor or action know-how as preceding mental object know-how, von Glasersfeld fails to highlight what I would consider the most conspicuous and most constructivist component of Piaget’s theory of knowledge. Namely that action, not perception, is the key concept of an adequate theory of knowledge and that we humans in development first construct the reality of sensorimotor action knowledge before we continue to construct the reality of mental object knowledge

((9)) I fully recognize Piaget’s achievement of describing the formation of the mental object or the mental symbol as a logical-cognitive construction (rather than assuming the innate existence of this psychological power). But I am convinced that logic alone cannot ground this new power. Piaget ingenuously defines mentality as “action-differentiated” (= action separated) know-how and mental Symbols too as “action-differentiated” Signals. But it requires an extra-logical or extra-cognitive motivation to explain this new development.

((10)) I believe Freud’s theory of desire, of the libidinal object, provides this necessary motivational component. As we humans have the cognitive capacity to separate the object of action from the action, we also have the capacity to separate libido from sexuality proper. We are the animal that can fall in love with mental objects. In short I hold that Piaget’s logical mental object equals Freud’s libidinal object. You cannot have one without the other. I discuss these points in Furth (1987).

((11)) However, logic by itself is empty and desire by itself is blind. Concrete reality needs a concrete content. So does human evolution. What then is the content to which humans in evolution came to be adapted? I am critical of von Glasersfeld description of primitive humans attempting to observe and form concepts of reality, striving for equilibration in the sense of a true perception of reality. In fact, I insist that we humans “construct” our reality. The Creative construction of reality is what makes a theory of knowledge truly radical. But what concretely is this specific human reality?

((12)) Searching for an answer to the above question, 1 studied young children’s most spontaneous activities, such as pretend play, peer interactions, speech, particularity private speech. I found that all these activities presupposed what von Glasersfeld could call a “proto-reality.” The nature of this proto-reality is precisely the mental frame of a human society. In other words, by the time they acquire the competence to form mental objects and Symbols (around two years of age), children can be seen as falling in love with these objects and as being desirous of sharing them with peers. This desiring and sharing of mental objects and Symbols is in fact the foundation of all human societies. See my recent work, Furth (1996), particularity Chapter 14, “The Plot of the Mental Object Capacity: There is More in Piaget’s Permanent Object Than Meets the Eye.”

((13)) Consequently, I conclude that human mentality is at the origin of human societies, both individually and evolutionarily. We became humans as we created human societies (as distinguished from sensorimotor societies) and became adapted to them; we developed our human knowledge so as to construct, better: co-construct, human societies.

((14)) In this perspective, children’s pretend play, fantasies and peer interactions, (just as Bach’s Goldberg Variations) make sense as being different ways of “making society.” Making-society is what made us humans in evolutionary history and what makes each individual child become an active member of a human society, capable of contributing to and assimilating a present concrete society (“negotiating” society (63)).

((15)) Similarly, a truly radical constructive theory of knowledge must necessarily be anchored within a societal frame. And this frame includes in addition to Contemporary and recent history/culture, individual biases and desires which as such have nothing to do with objective truth or practical utility (58).

((16)) Moreover, I agree with von Glasersfeld (62) that short of a transcendent basis, a radical constructivism is a potent ground for rejecting a crude ethical relativism “where anything goes.” By seeing us as constructors of our reality/society, I at the same time stress my responsibility for a world that we now threaten with extinction and I acknowledge the quasi biological social constraints (such as sharing of symbols or mutual relations) that are already evident in spontaneous child development.

((17)) In conclusion, von Glasersfeld’s “radical” theory of knowledge certainly points in the right direction, but seems to me to lack the full radicalness that I detect, explicitly or implicitly, in Piaget’s work.


Furth. H.G. (1987). Knowledge as desire: An essay on Freud and Piaget. New York: University of Columbia Press.
Furth, H.G. (1996). Desire for society: Children's knowledge as social imagination. New York: Plenum Press.
von Glasersfeld, E. (1998). Die radikal-konstruktivistische Wissenstheorie. Ethik und Sozialwissenschaften (9).