Purpose: Appreciating the relationship between Sylvio Ceccato and Ernst von Glasersfeld, both as people and in their work. Approach: historical and personal accounts, archeological approach to written evidence. Findings: Ceccato’s work is introduced to an English speaking audience, and the roots of Glasersfeld’s work in Ceccato’s is explored. Flaws in Ceccato’s approach are indicated, together with how Glasersfeld’s work overcomes these, specially in language and automatic translation, and what became Radical Constructivism. Conclusion: Glasersfeld willingly acknowledges Ceccato, who he still refers to as the Master. But Ceccato’s work is little known, specially in the English speaking world. The introduction, critique and delineation of extension and resolution of Ceccato’s ideas in Glasersfeld’s work is the intended value of the paper.
Purpose: Ernst von Glasersfeld has actively contributed to the development of the ideas of the Scuola Operativa Italiana (SOI) from 1947. The paper outlines the theoretical status of the SOI research around 1965, which also marks the conclusion of an important phase of this development. The aim is to contribute to better understanding of the continuity of Glasersfeld’s research.
Purpose: Yerkish is an artificial language created in 1971 for the specific purpose of exploring the linguistic potential of nonhuman primates. The aim of this paper is to remind the research community of some important issues and concepts related to Yerkish that seem to have been forgotten or appear to be distorted. These are, particularly, its success, its promising aspects for future research and last but not least that it was Ernst von Glasersfeld who invented Yerkish: he coined the term “lexigrams,” created the first 120 of them and designed the grammar that regulated their combination. Design: The first part of this paper begins with a short outline of the context in which the Yerkish language originated: the original LANA project. It continues by presenting the language itself in more detail: first, its design, focusing on its “lexigrams” and its “correlational” grammar (the connective functions or “correlators” and the combinations of lexigrams, or “correlations”), and then its use by the chimpanzee Lana in formulating sentences. The second part gives a brief introduction to the foundation of Yerkish in Silvio Ceccato’s Operational Methodology, particularly his idea of the correlational structure of thought and concludes with the main insights that can be derived from the Yerkish experiment seen in the light of Operational Methodology. Findings: Lana’s success in language learning and the success of Yerkish during the past decades are probably due to the characteristics of Yerkish, particularly its foundation in operational methodology. The operation of correlation could be what constitutes thinking in a chimpanzee and an attentional system could be what delivers the mental content that correlation assembles into triads and networks. Research implications: Since no other assessment or explanation of Lana’s performances has considered these foundational issues (findings), a new research project or program should validate the above-mentioned hypotheses, particularly the correlational structure of chimpanzee thinking.
Context: Meeting Ernst von Glasersfeld for the first time in 1985, when about 70% of his work had still to be conceived, written and published, was a great stroke of fortune for me; it was based on my collaboration with Silvio Ceccato that had started in 1981 and it profoundly influenced my contributions to radical constructivism in the following 25 years of our friendship. Problem: Presenting the details of how it all began can shed a light on the development of constructivist ideas. Method: Anecdotes from 1979 to 1985 about how I came to meet Silvio Ceccato in Milan in 1981 and the influence of these events on preparing the 1985 meeting with Ernst von Glasersfeld, also in Milan. Results: The article describes the timeline of 50 years of publications by von Glasersfeld, an anecdote about a connection between Ceccato and the University of Zurich in the 60s, the attempt to present Ceccato’s ideas as compatible and complementary with the neuroscience discourse in 1985, von Glasersfeld’s opinion about this attempt, and this attempt’s potential influence on the emergence of a new concept in neuroscience, “EEG microstates.” Implications: The events and facts reported in the article help us to understand some aspects of an early phase in the development of radical constructivism, especially the relationship between Ceccato, von Glasersfeld and other members of the Italian Operational School such as Bruna Zonta, Felice Accame, and the author himself.
Within the limits of one chapter, an unconventional way of thinking can certainly not be thoroughly justified, but it can, perhaps, be presented in its most characteristic features anchored here and there in single points. There is, of course, the danger of being misunderstood. In the case of constructivism, there is the additional risk that it will be discarded at first sight because, like skepticism – with which it has a certain amount in common – it might seem too cool and critical, or simply incompatible with ordinary common sense. The proponents of an idea, as a rule, explain its nonacceptance differently than do the critics and opponents. Being myself much involved, it seems to me that the resistance met in the 18th century by Giambattista Vico, the first true constructivist, and by Silvio Ceccato and Jean Piaget in the more recent past, is not so much due to inconsistencies or gaps in their argumentation, as to the justifiable suspicion that constructivism intends to undermine too large a part of the traditional view of the world. 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. 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.
Excerpt: In 1974… I wrote a chapter assembling some philosophical precedents and presenting my interpretation of Piaget’s theory. It was the first time the epithet “radical” was used. It was intended in the sense that William James had used in his radical empiricism, i.e., meaning “going to the roots” or “uncompromising.” I chose it because at the time many developmental psychologists were mentioning Piaget’s constructivism but without going into its epistemological implications. What they called construction seemed to refer to the fact that children acquire adult knowledge not all at once, but in small pieces. I did not think that this was a revelation and therefore called their approach “trivial constructivism.” It was clearly no way to gain the friendship of traditional psychologists but in the long run it did not do much harm.
Mit feiner Ironie und der Weisheit eines langen Lebens erzählt Glasersfeld persönliche Geschichten seines Jahrhunderts. Aufgewachsen in Südtirol und in der Schweiz, spricht er drei Sprachen schon als Kind; Studium in Zürich und Wien; Schilehrer in St. Anton und Australien. 1938 Emigration über Paris nach Irland, dort Landarbeit als staatenloser Farmer. Begegnungen mit Hedy Lamarr und Erwin Schrödinger, Freundschaft mit Erskine Childers, dem späteren Präsidenten von Irland. Nach dem Krieg Kulturjournalist in Südtirol und Italien; Gespräche mit Fellini und Berenson. In Mailand wird er Forscher am Zentrum für Kybernetik von Silvio Ceccato; 1962 Leiter eines Forschungsprojektes für maschinelle Übersetzung in Italien, später in den USA. Als Professor für Kognitive Psychologie entwickelt er „Yerkish“, eine erste „Schimpansensprache“. Freundschaft mit Heinz von Foerster. Ausarbeitung des „Radikalen Konstruktivismus“. Seine Ideen werden in den Kognitionswissenschaften ebenso diskutiert wie in der Ökonomie, in der Literaturund Medientheorie, in der Wissenschaftsdidaktik, in der Pädagogik, in der Psychologie und Psychotherapie, in Philosophie und Linguistik.
When Silvio Ceccato began to collaborate with D’ARS in 1963, in his first article, “Cybernetics and Art” (No. 2 March-May), he concluded that perhaps a new chapter of pedagogy in the field of art had opened. Although he was aware of the innovative strength of his ideas, he could certainly not predict the promising results that would have been achieved later with the experimentation in teaching and in particular in the context of aesthetic enjoyment. Even though schools were able to profit from his advanced ideas, the most important indication coming from his research certainly concerns its contribution to robotics. The model of mental operations that he designed from the sixties at the Center of Cybernetics and Linguistic Activities of the University of Milan can still help tackle the problem of artificial intelligence, which is, of course, controversial, but of compelling actuality.
Context: Ernst von Glasersfeld collaborated with the Italian Operational School from the early 1960s when the project on the mechanization of higher human activities began. Problem: To analyze the cognitive processes in terms of a mnemonic-attentional dynamic and to study every thought content in light of the interdependence between observer and observed. Method: The project comprised two research areas: the linguistic translation, in which von Glasersfeld participated; and the semantic analysis of words, in which I participated. The common basis was the analysis of attentional dynamisms. This allowed the syntactic complexity of a sentence to be transferred to the correlational structure of the thought. The semantic analysis, especially of the observational words, was based on the attentional dynamisms used for the categorization, perception, and representation processes. Results: The analysis of visual processes led to the “constitutive structures.” These structures allowed me to establish an operative didactic based on the awareness of mental operations. Implications: The comparison between von Glasersfeld’s and my experiences revealed the equivalence of some analyses, which was due to the common presumption that the experiential units depend on the operation performed by the perceiver.
Ernst von Glasersfeld, *1917, studied mathematics in Zurich and Vienna, was a farmer in County Dublin during the War, and worked as a journalist in Italy from 1947. There he met the philosopher and cybernetician Silvio Ceccato who, in the beginning stages of the computer age, had gathered a team of researchers in order to carry out projects of computational linguistic analysis and automatic language translation. Ernst von Glasersfeld became a close collaborator of Ceccato’s, translated for him, and developed projects of his own. In 1966, he moved to the USA where he was made a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Georgia in 1970. Three principal research interests have made him one of the well-known founders of constructivism. He systematically scoured the history of European philosophy for varieties of epistemological skepticism and set up an ancestral gallery reaching back to the insights of the ancient skeptics of the 4th century B. C. He replaced the classical realist concept of truth by the idea of viability: theories need not and do not correspond with what is real, he says, but they must be practicable and useful, they must be viable. Finally, he introduced the work of the Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, into the constructivist debate. Jean Piaget, in his book La construction du reel chez l’enfant, constructs a model of how knowledge is created and developed through the confirmation or disappointment of expectations (or, more precisely, of particular patterns of action, so-called schemes). A model of this kind has profound consequences for the conception of learning and teaching: it eliminates the reification of information and knowledge, the conception of knowledge as a substance that can be transferred from the teacher’s head to the empty heads of students. The mechanical idea of teaching evaporates. We must face the ineluctable subjectivity of meanings and given cognitive patterns. From this perspective, the acquisition of knowledge no longer appears to be a passive reception of information but a creative activity. The upshot is that teaching someone something will only be successful if it is oriented toward the reality of that someone. Ernst von Glasersfeld is, at present, with the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts. There he works on models of teaching and learning that apply the theory of constructivism to school practice.