CEPA eprint 1391 (EVG-101)

Kant, constructivism, and the territorial dogma

Glasersfeld E. von (1986) Kant, constructivism, and the territorial dogma. Continuing the Conversation (ASC Newsletter) 2(5): 3. Available at http://cepa.info/1391
In May 1985, when I called my brief talk at St. Benedict College “The Last Question,” I thought it was obvious that I was referring to a question which to me – and perhaps to some others – had been left open by Gregory Bateson. It never struck me that anyone would jump to the conclusion that I had an answer, let alone would claim that any answer of mine would be “identical to those proposed by Bateson.” As far as I am concerned, therefore, David Shiner’s final admonition in “Gregory Bateson and the Map-Territory Relationship” misses the mark.
Thanks to the excellent tapes that were so lovingly provided by Maureen Opitz, I was able to refresh my memory about what was actually said and to confirm that I was not proffering answers but merely trying to sort out a few points in a problem that Bateson, like so many others, have been grappling with during the 2500 years of recorded Western thought.
To continue the conversation, let me say it as clearly as I can: I am competent neither to speak for Gregory Bateson, nor to argue against him. But I am quite willing to argue about Kant, the problems of rational knowledge, and the constitution of what we call “reality.”
Kant, indeed, never denied ontological reality (nor did Mersenne or Vico, whom I mentioned), but he made it very clear that, in his view, there was nothing we could rationally know or say about it. Kant substantiated his position by saying that space and time were Formen unserer Anschauung (i.e., characteristics inherent in our human way of seeing and experiencing) and that, thanks to these 2 inherent forms, we produce Vorstellungen. That last German word has created appalling misconceptions for English readers because it was unfortunately translated as “representations.” To an English speaker, “representation” means a picture or replica of something else which is to be considered the original. That would correspond to the German word Darstellung. The word that Kant used throughout would be better rendered by “idea” or “conception” or, indeed, “construct.”
If one takes Kant seriously, it follows at once that what we call “structure” or “pattern” or “order” is always the result of placing things into space, time, or both.
If, now, these are forms that the human experiencer supplies out of himself or herself, it becomes obvious that we cannot possibly know what an ontological world might be like before we have placed it into these forms. We cannot imagine or visualize or conceive anything that is not in space and/or time, and even the term “existence” has no fathomable meaning without these forms.
Our maps do reflect a territory, but a territory has to be an arrangement in space and/or time, and that is, an arrangement of paths, of movements, and of actions we ourselves have made, and of the points where these movements and actions got stuck and went no further. It is naive wishful thinking to claim that such maps could reflect something beyond our experiential world in space and time (where the word “beyond” is already a questionable metaphor).
The differences we register in the manifold of our sensory experience, as well as those we notice in the realm of our conceptual operating, are just that – differences that we happen to be making with our ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking. To perceive a difference, one must have made a cut somewhere, at least the cut between figure and ground. And cuts that separate pieces presuppose space or time or both. Thus the cutting is part and parcel of our way of experiencing, and so are the differences we register and the relations we then construct among the pieces we have isolated. The world that we know – or try to know – cannot be a world we have not yet experienced, a world of which the mystics of all times have said that it is an uncut, seamless whole.
The “last question” I was talking about was, in fact, not an epistemological question but a question of ethics: How can we stop ourselves from segmenting our experiential world in ways that have begun to threaten life – life which, after all, is the necessary condition for all experience. Like Bateson, I believe that finding a way out of that dilemma requires the dismantling of “pathologies of epistemology”; and, to me, the most pernicious among these pathologies is the belief that reason can tell us something about the ontological world.
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