There are many varieties of epistemological and cognitive constructivism. They have in common an appreciation of the failures of centuries of attempts to realize a correspondence notion of truth and representation, and they all propose some constructivist programme as an alternative. The programmatic proposals, however, can differ greatly. Some contemporary constructivisms that are being vigorously advocated propose a social form of idealism with a consequent relativism. Such proposals risk giving constructivism a bad name. The main burden of this article is to show that such an idealism and relativism is not forced by constructivism, but, instead, is the result of an additional and questionable presupposition. Constructivism per se is a strong epistemological position that is fully compatible with realism.
Diverse forms of constructivism can be found in the literature today. They exhibit a commonality regarding certain classical positions that they oppose – a unity in their negative identities – but a sometimes wild multiplicity and incompatibility regarding the positive proposals that they put forward. In particular, some constructivisms propose an epistemological idealism, with a concomitant relativism, while others are explicitly opposed to such positions, and move in multifarious different directions. This is a potentially confusing situation, and has resulted in some critics branding all constructivisms with the charge of relativism, and throwing out the baby with the bath water. In addition, since the epistemological foundations of even non-relativist constructivisms are not as familiar as the classical positions, there is a risk of mis-interpretation of constructivisms and their consequences, even by some who endorse them, not to mention those who criticize. Because I urge that some version of constructivism is an epistemological necessity, this situation strikes me as seriously unfortunate for philosophy, and potentially dangerous for the practice of education.
Context: In his work on neurophenomenology, the late Francisco Varela overtly tackled the well-known “hard problem” of the (physical) origin of phenomenal consciousness. Problem: Did he have a theory for solving this problem? No, he declared, only a “remedy.” Yet this declaration has been overlooked: Varela has been considered (successively or simultaneously) as an idealist, a dualist, or an identity theorist. Results: These primarily theoretical characterizations of Varela’s position are first shown to be incorrect. Then it is argued that there exists a stance (let’s call it the Varelian stance) in which the problem of the physical origin of primary consciousness, or pure experience, does not even arise. Implications: The nature of the “hard problem” of consciousness is changed from an intellectual puzzle to an existential option. Constructivist content: The role of ontological prejudice about what the world is made of (a prejudice that determines the very form of the “hard problem” as the issue of the origin of consciousness out of a pre-existing material organization) is downplayed, and methodologies and attitudes are put to the fore.
The paper presents a discussion of the epistemological and ontological problems of attempts to found information concepts on the often implicit mechanistic idea that the physical sciences hold the key to the nature of reality and information. It is furthermore shown through an analysis of the ethological and the Batesonian understanding of cognition and behavior that it is impossible to remove the fundamental epistemological position of the observer through a definition of information as neg-entropy. Instead Maturana and Varela’s concepts of autopoiesis and multiverse are invoked. But where the idea to derive information from the concept of negentropy is too physicalistic Maturana’s idea of a multiverse seems to be too close to a constructivistic idealism. To develop a more fruitful non-reductionistic world view it is shown that the more pragmatic understanding of physics, where thermodynamics is understood as the basic discipline and mechanics as an idealization, opens for a non-reductionistic con-ceptualization of chaos. Attention is drawn to C. S. Peirce’s conception of pure chance as living spontaneity which is to some degree regular as a realistic but non-reductionistic theory, which comprises a solution to the different world view problems of Bateson and Maturana. A fruitful connection between second order cybernetics and semiotics will then be possible and a bridge between the technical-scientific and the humanistic-social parts of cybernetics can be developed.
Purpose: To develop a realistic view that integrates the idea that knowledge is a constructive process. Problem: In the controversy between realism and constructivism, both sides have often misunderstood each other. Many realists still consider constructivism as a kind of idealism. And constructivists often assume that realists believe they have direct access to things as they really are. It seems necessary to clarify the statements of either side, to rule out some misunderstandings, and then to discuss anew the central epistemological problems. Solution: A version of realism is proposed that takes into account constructivist ideas and objections. Realism as presented here is not opposed to the idea that cognition is a constructive process. According to this view, reality is something we presuppose in any attempt to attain knowledge though we can never be certain how things really are. Having knowledge amounts to the preliminary judgment that some hypotheses seem to correspond to reality better than others. In addition, it is demonstrated that a constructivist position that reduces the claim to knowledge even further does not solve the problems better but creates new ones. Finally, Mitterer’s non-dualizing view of descriptions is discussed. It is argued that description necessarily presupposes something different from language.
I assume that every theory of knowing presupposes an ontology or metaphysics, identifying the organization of beings capable of knowing something and the domain of objects and relations to which their knowledge claims might apply. Constructivist epistemology will be no exception. In particular, Ernst von Glaserfeld’s “radical” constructivism and Humberto Maturana’s “bringforthist” position incline toward metaphysical idealism, as both theories overstate the antirealist implications of a trivially true version of perspectivalism. My outline of hypothetical realism is designed to highlight several constructivist misconceptions, including: (1) the idea that there can be no meaningful access to a world that exists and has a nature independently of our making; (2) the idea that constructivism alone recognizes the irreducible plurality of our perspectives on the world; and (3) the idea that constructivist anti-realism is compatible with a focus on the social or linguistic nature of experience.
In this paper I identify five logical fault lines in Ernst von Glasersfeld’s exposition and defense of radical constructivism (RC). Ordered, roughly, from the epistemological-metaphysical to the social-political-educational, the five are as follows: (1) that the constructive nature of the knowing process necessarily restricts in some important way that which can be known; in particular, (2) that we cannot know (on any non-mysterious interpretation of the word “know”) the metaphysical realist’s mind – or language – independent objects of knowledge; (3) that RC is an ontologically neutral doctrine, resting somewhere beyond the dispute between metaphysical realism and idealism; (4) that RC is compatible with a focus on the social or linguistic nature of experience; and, finally, (5) that RC is an inherently progressive or tolerant theory.
Maturana and Varela have developed important theories about living systems (autopoiesis) and also about the brain/nervous system and cognition. These theories have strongly subjectivist implications leading to the view that our explanations and descriptions reflect the structure of the subject, rather than that of an objective world, and that we therefore construct the world which we experi¬ence. This paper analyzes Maturana’s ideas in terms of the main philosophical traditions – empiricism, idealism, and realism – showing that they are a blend of both realist and antirealist positions. It then provides a critique of Maturana’s radical subjectivism and argues that his theory is best seen as compatible with critical realism.
Purpose: The paper intends to investigate possible affinities between Husserlian phenomenology, mainly on the basis of Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität, and radical constructivism, essentially in its version according to Maturana and Varela. Findings: Although the two thoughts appear to be delivered in terms that can be philosophically quite abstract for the Husserlian phenomenology and that are empirical-concrete for radical constructivism in Maturana’s thought, there is actually an obvious closeness between the two theories of knowledge, so that the epistemological approach used on both sides can be said to be idealistic. This idealistic orientation in epistemology certainly has its basis in the links seen on both sides between the organic and the cognitive dimension of the subject, although those links are taken as a theme in a kinesthetic approach by Husserl and in a bio-physiological one by Maturana. Neurophenomenology is nowadays one of the fields where this organic–cognitive link – which is crucial for an idealistic approach to knowledge – is being expressed. Research implications: Talking about idealism should not be a source of fear, especially when what is meant is an epistemological idealism and when it is clearly and simply understood as the philosophical and epistemological orientation that interprets the subject as determining the way the object is known in the cognitive process. Also idealism does not mean necessarily subjective idealism. Some very “balanced” authors developed a theory of knowledge that is usually seen as idealistic without ignoring the role played by the object in the cognitive process. It is therefore worth investigating further the fact that the ultimate meaning of idealistic epistemologies acknowledging intersubjectivity as a defining dimension of knowledge, is not to ignore the object but to rigorously reestablish the genesis of the object in the cognitive process.
Radical constructivism has had a major influence on present-day education, especially in the teaching of science and mathematics. The article provides an epistemological profile of constructivism and considers its strengths and weaknesses from the standpoint of its educational implications. It is argued that there are two central problems with constructivism: anti-realism and individualism which, in turn, lead to difficulties associated with idealism and relativism which, together, prove fatal for the theory.