CEPA eprint 1402 (EVG-112)

An exposition of radical constructivism

Glasersfeld E. von (1988) An exposition of radical constructivism. In: Donaldson R. (ed.) Texts in cybernetics. American Society for Cybernetics, Felton CA. Available at http://cepa.info/1402
Table of Contents
Knowledge and “Reality”
Vico – The First Constructivist
Some Recent Elements
Cognition as an Adaptive Function
The Context of Scheme Theory
The Social Component
A Perspective on Communication
Some Further Considerations
This text is a composite and contains pieces from several papers, among which: ‘Cognition, Construction of Knowledge, and Teaching’, to be published in Synthese, 1989: The Reluctance to Change a May of Thinking’, to be published.in The Irish Journal of Psychology, 1988; ‘Environment and Communication’, prepared for the Action Group 1, International Conference on Mathematics Education (ICME-6), Budapest, August 1988.
Michel de Montaigne is often listed among the sceptics. This is a little misleading because he actually used his outstanding it and erudition to defend the realm of religious faith against the threat of the Pyrrhoniens. These “Pyrrhonists” were a subversive group of thinkers who had rediscovered Sextus Empiricus and his account of Pyrrho, the father of scepticism in the Hellenic world. Montaigne merely cut down to size the efforts of human reason. He put it as concisely as one can:
La peste de l’homme, c’est l’opinion de savoir.[Note 1]
The translation that seems the most adequate to me would be:
Mankind’s plague is the conceit of knowing.
Radical constructivism is an effort to eliminate that conceit. It does not deny the possibility of knowing, but it strives to show that knowledge is not the commodity the tradition of Western philosophy would have us believe. Indeed, constructivism is a theory of active knowing, not a conventional epistemology that treats knowledge as an embodiment of Truth that reflects the world in itself,” independent of the knower. The basic principles of radical constructivism are:
1 – a) knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication;
b) knowledge is actively built up by the cognizing subject.
2 – a) The function of cognition is adaptive (in the biological sense of the term);
b) cognition serves the subject’s organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality.
To adopt these principles means to relinquish the mainstays of an inveterate conceptual network. It means getting out of habitual pathways and reconceptualizing a different rational view of the world. In short, it involves a good deal of thinking and, as Betrand Russell once said, people would rather die than think, and they do.
Knowledge and “Reality”
One of the differences between the vocational practice of theology and religion, on the one hand, and the lay practice of science and philosophy, on the other, we were told in school, is that the first is founded on a dogma that is held to be absolute and immutable because it stems from divine revelation; all lay practice, instead, is tentative because it develops theories that are always open to refutation by new ways fo thinking, new findings, or novel experiments with things or thoughts. Scientists and philosophers, therefore, are supposed to be open-minded and to welcome the solution of stubborn problems, even if the new solutions entail a change of ideas and the demise of concepts that seemed well established in the past. Montaigne and some of his contemporaries had a very clear view of this dichotomy. They were sceptics with regard to the rational knowledge of science and believers with regard to the traditional tenets of religion.
A look at the subsequent history of ideas, however, quickly shows that scientists and philosophers do not always live up to this ideal open-mindedness. The concepts and methods they have grown up with frequently seem to be as unshakable as any matter of religious faith and the perpetrators of innovation tend to be treated as heretics. This happened to Darwin and his theory of evolution, to Einstein when he first published on relativity, and it happened to Alfred Wegener when he suggested the idea of continental drift. In these instances the break with tradition advocated by the new theory was unmistakable and. consequently, triggered violent indignation on the part of those who were anxious to maintain the established dogma. The new theories won eventually, because they enabled scientists to do things they were not able to do before and to cover a larger area of experience with fewer assumptions.
New ideas in philosophy do not often gain decisive victories. I would not be so presumptuous as to offer an explanation why it is apparently so easy to live with profound epistemological contradictions. Being a little cynical in that regard, I feel that the quip I earlier quoted from Bertrand Russell says something to the point. Besides, there is a German saying (from Wilhem Busch, I believe) which, to me, seems relevant: “Der liebe Gott muss immer ziehn, dem Teufel fällt’s von selber zu.” (The good Lord must forever pull, but to the devil things fall quite by themselves.) If one replaces the ethical connotation with one of straight thinking. it fits our situation well: It seems quite natural that philosophical problems will be shelved when there are cherries to be picked or enemies to be fought.
Be this as it may, it is an historical fact that the preSocratics already saw very clearly what was to remain the major problem of Western philosophy for the next 2500 years: If one assumes, (a) that a fully structured world exists out there,” independent of any experiencing subject, and (b) that the cognizing subject has the task of finding out what that world is “really” like, one hangs the millstone of an irreducible paradox around one’s neck. Whatever the subject perceives or conceives will necessarily be the result of the subject’s ways and means of perceiving and conceiv‑ing – and there is no way ever to compare these results with
what there was in the first place. The sceptics have not ceased to reiterate this, but it has not deterred philosophers from trying to find a way around the impasse. The urge to persevere in the guest for that unobtainable “objective knowledge” seems almost ineradicable. (And therefore. some philosophers concluded, objective knowledge must be obtainable after all.)
The trouble was (and is) that the sceptics’ arguments have always focused on the negative. By reiterating that true knowledge of the objective world is impossible, they have helped to perpetuate the idea that knowledge, in order to be any good, would have to be about the objective world. This idea is at the very core of the Western epistemological tradition and the occasional dissidents, who tried to get away from it, have had virtually no effect.
The last three decades, however, have manifested symptoms that may indicate a change. It is certainly not the first time that scientific developments are having an influence on the professional thinking of philosophers, but I believe it is the first time that scientists are raising serious questions about the kind of epistemology philosophers have been defending. The disruption shows itself in the discipline that has become known as the Philosophy of Science and awareness of trouble was spread to a much wider public by
Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There, undisguised and for everyone to read, was the explicit statement that
… research in parts of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and even art history, all converge to suggest that the traditional epistemological paradigm is somehow askew. That failure to fit is also made increasingly apparent by the historical, study of science …. None of these crisis-promoting subjects has yet produced a viable alternate to the traditional epistemological paradigm, but they do begin to suggest what some of that paradigm’s characteristics will be. (Kuhn, 1970, p.121)
While the troubles of the “traditional epistemological paradigm” have shown no sign of subsiding in the years since Kuhn’s publication, one could not honestly say that any substitute has been generally accepted. In most highschools and Universities teaching continues as though nothing had happened and the quest for immutable objective Truths were as promising as ever. For some of us, however, a different view of knowledge has emerged, not as a new invention but rather as the result of pursuing suggestions made by much earlier dissidents. This view differs from the old one in that it deliberately discards the notion that knowledge could or should be a representation of an observer-independent world-in-itself. It replaces it with the demand that the conceptual constructs we call knowledge be viable in the world as the knowing subject experiences it. (This is, in fact, quite similar to what the pragmatists have been saying.)
Ludwig Fleck, whose monograph of 1935 Kuhn acknowledged as a forerunner, wrote an earlier article in 1929 that went virtually unnoticed although it already contained much that presages what the Young Turks have been proposing in recent years:
The content of our knowledge must be considered the free creation of our culture. It resembles a traditional myth (Fleck 1929, p. 425).
Every thinking individual, insofar as it is a member of some society, has its on reality according to which and in which it lives (p.426).
Not only the ways and means of problem solutions are subject to the scientific style, but also, and to an even greater extent, the choice of problems (p. 427).
Vico – The First Constructivist
The notion of cognitive “creation” or, as I prefer to say, construction, was adopted in our century by Mark Baldwin and then extensively elaborated by Jean Piaget. Piaget’s constuctivist theory of cognitive development and cognition,
to which I shall return later, had, unbeknownst to him, a striking forerunner in the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico. Vico’s epistemological treatise (1710) was written in Latin and remained almost unknown. Yet no present-day constructivist can afford to ignore it, because the way Vico formulated certain key ideas and the way they were briefly discussed at the time is, if anything, more relevant today then it was then.
The anonymous critic who, in 1711, reviewed Vico’s first exposition of a thoroughly constructivist epistemology expressed a minor and a major complaint. The first – with which any modern reader might agree – was that Vico’s treatise is so full of novel ideas that a summary would turn out to be almost as long as the work itself (e.g., the introduction of developmental stages and the incommensurability of ideas at different historical or individual stages, the origin of conceptual certainty as a result of abstraction and formalization, the role of language in the shaping of concepts). The reviewer’s second objection, however, is more relevant to my purpose here, because it clearly brings out the problem constructivists run into, from Vico’s days right down to our own.
Vico’s treatise De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (1710), the Venetian reviewer says, is likely to give the reader “an idea and a sample of the author’s metaphysics rather than to prove it.” By proof, the 18th-century reviewer intended very much the same as so many writers seem to intend today, namely a solid demonstration that what is asserted is true of the “real” world. This conventional demand cannot be satisfied by Vico or any proponent of a radically constructivist theory of knowing: one cannot do the very thing one claims to be impossible. To request a demonstration of Truth from a radical constructivist shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the author’s explicit intention to operate with a different conception of knowledge and of its relation to the “real” world.
One of Vico’s basic ideas was that epistemic agents can know nothing but the cognitive structures they themselves have put together. He expressed this in many ways, and the most striking is perhaps: “God is the artificer of Nature, man the god of artifacts.” Again and again he stresses that to know” means to know how to slake. He substantiates this by saying that one knows a thing only when one can tell what components it consists of. Consequently, God alone can know the real world, because He knows how and of what He has created it. In contrast, the human knower can know only what the human knower has constructed.
For constructivists, therefore, the word knowledge refers to a commodity that is radically different from the objective representation of an observer-independent world which the mainstream of the Western philosophical tradition has been looking for. Instead, knowledge refers to conceptual structures that epistemic agents, given the range of present experience within their tradition of thought and language, consider viable.
The most frequent objection to radical constructivism, at the beginning of the 18th century as well as now, takes the form of discarding it as a kind of solipsism. It is the main objection that George Berkeley had to contend with when he published his major epistemological work, A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge, in 1710 (by a strange coincidence, it was the same year that Vico published his treatise at the other end of Europe). If one keeps Berkeley’s title in mind, it will be clear that when he declares “esse est percipi” (to be is to be perceived), the being he is talking about is the only one the human knower can conceive of, and that is being in the world of experience, being constituted by the kind of permanence that results from invariants created by an experiencer’s successful assimilation (I shall explain this term later in the context of Piaget’s theory). But Berkeley’s opponents, just as today’s critics of constructivism, reacted as though he had been talking about the “world-in-itself” rather than about the principle of human knowledge.
Both Vico and Berkeley were concerned with the human activity of knowing. Both had strong ties with the religious dogma that claims an absolute, eternal order of the universe. Their way of reconciling their blatantly subjectivist theories of knowledge with the requirement of an immutable objective world were parallel and equally ingenious. For Berkeley the unity and permanence of ontological existence was assured by God’s perception which, because God is considered omniscient, was ubiquitous and all-encompassing. Vico, instead, maintained that, while the human mind could know only what the human mind itself had constructed, God knew the world as it is, because He had created it.
Some Recent Elements
Radical constructivism is less imaginative and more pragmatic. It does not deny an ontological “reality” – it merely denies the human experiencer the possibility of acquiring a “true” representation of it. The human subject may meet that world only where a way of acting or a way of thinking fails to attain the desired goal – but in any such failure there is no way of deciding whether the lack of success is due to an insufficiency of the chosen approach or to an independent ontological obstacle. Warren McCulloch expressed it very simply: “To have proved a hypothesis false is indeed the peak of knowledge” (1965, p.154). What we call “knowledge,” then, is the map of paths of action and thought which, at that moment in the course of our experience, have turned out to be viable for us. Such a limitation of the scope of human understanding is, of course, considered dangerous heresy by all who, in spite of the sceptics age-old warnings, still cling to the hope that human reason will sooner or later unravel the mystery of the universe.
Richard Rorty, in his Introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism, announces this shift of focus in terms that fit the constructivist’s position just as well as the pragmatist’s:
He (the pragmatist) drops the notion of truth as correspondence with reality altogether, and says that modern science does not enable us to cope because it corresponds, it just enables us to cope. (Rorty 1982, p.XVII)
Constructivism is a form of pragmatism and shares with it the attitude towards knowledge and truth; and no less than pragmatism does it go against the common urge to escape the vocabulary and practices of one’s own time and find something ahistorical and necessary to cling to (Rorty 1982, p. 165).
When the anonymous reviewer complained that Vico did not prove his thesis, he in fact reproached Vico for not having claimed for his “metaphysics” (which was actually a theory of knowing) the correspondence with an ahistorical ontic world as God sight know it. But this notion of correspondence was precisely what Vico – like the pragmatists – intended to drop.
Present-day constructivists, however, if pressed for corroboration rather than proof in the traditional sense, have an advantage over Vico. They can claim compatibility with scientific models that enable us to “cope” remarkably well in specific areas of experience. For instance, one might cite the neurophysiology of the brain and quote Hebb’s:
At a certain level of physiological analysis there is no reality but the firing of single neurons (Hebb 1958, p. 461).
This is complemented by von Foerster’s (1970) observation that all sensory receptors (i.e. visual, auditory, tactual, etc.) send physically indistinguishable “responses” to the cortex and that, therefore, the “sensory modalitities” can be distinguished only by keeping track of the part of the body from which the responses come, and not _on the basis of “environmental features.” Such statements make clear that contemporary neurophysiological models may be compatible with a constructivist theory of knowing but can in no way be integrated with the notion of transduction of “information” from the environment that any realist epistemology demands.
Cognition as an Adaptive Function
Constructivism differs from pragmatism in its predominant interest in how the knowledge that “enables us to cope” is arrived at. The work of Jean Piaget, the most prolific constructivist in our century, can be interpreted as one long struggle to design a model of the generation of viable knowledge. In spite of the fact that Piaget has reiterated innumerable times (cf. 1967a, pp.210ff) that, from his perspective, cognition must be considered an adaptive function, most of his critics argue against him as though he were concerned with the traditional quest for “true” knowledge, i.e., knowledge that could be said to correspond to an ontological reality.
This misinterpretation is to some extent due to a misconception about adaptation. The technical sense of the term that Piaget intended comes from the theory of evolution. In that context, adaptation refers to a state of organisms or species that is characterized by their ability to survive in a given environment. Because the word is often used as a verb (e.g. this or that species has adapted to such and such an environment), the impression has been given that adaptation is an activity of organisms. This is quite misleading. In phylogeny no organism can actively modify its genome and generate characteristics to suit a changed environment. According to the theory of evolution, the modification of genes is always an accident. Indeed, it is these accidental modifications that generate the variations on which natural selection can operate. And nature does not – as even Darwin occasionally slipped into saying (Pittendrigh 1958, p. 397) – select “the fittest,” it merely lets live those that have the characteristics necessary to cope with their environment and lets die all that have not.
This interpretation of the theory of evolution and its vocabulary is crucial for an adequate understanding of Piaget’s theory of cognition. Knowledge for Piaget, as for Vico, is never (and can never be) a “representation” of the real world. Instead it is the collection of conceptual structures that turn out to be adapted or, as I would say, viable within the knowing subject’s range of experience. (Note: Piaget nevertheless uses the word “representation” – and so do I; but it is intended to refer to a re-presentation of a prior experience, not a picture of the “external” world; hence, I spell it with a hyphen, which Piaget did only occasionally.)
Both in the theory of evolution and the constructivist theory of knowing, “viability” is tied to the concept of equilibrium. Equilibrium in evolution indicates the state of an organism or species in which the potential for survival in a given environment is thought to be genetically assured.
In the sphere of cognition, though indirectly linked to survival, equilibrium refers to a state in which an epistemic agent’s cognitive structures have in the past yielded expected results, and continue to do so, without bringing to the surface conceptual conflicts or contradictions. In neither case is equilibrium necessarily a static affair, like the equilibrium of a balance beam, but it can be and often is dynamic, as the equilibrium maintained by a cyclist.
To make the Piagetian definition of knowledge plausible, one must immediately take into account (which so many interpreters of Piaget seem to omit) that a human subject’s experience always includes the social interaction with other cognizing subjects. But introducing the notion of social interaction, raises a problem for constructivists. If what a cognizing subject knows cannot be anything but what that subject has constructed, it is clear that, from the constructivist perspective, the others with whom the subject may interact socially cannot be posited as an ontological given. I shall return to this problem, but first I want to explicate the basis of a Piagetian theory of learning.
The Context of Scheme Theory
Two of the basic concepts of Piaget’s theory of cognition are assimilation and accommodation. Piaget’s use of these terms is not quite the same as their common use in ordinary language. Both terms must be understood in the context of his constructivist theory of knowing. Unfortunately, contemporary textbooks in developmental psychology, most of which devote at least a few pages to Piaget, often fail to explain this. Thus one reads, for instance:
Assimilation is the process whereby changing elements in the environment become incorporated into the structure of the organism. At the same time, the organism must accommodate its functioning to the nature of what is being assimilated. (Nash 1970, p. 760)
This is not at all what Piaget meant. One reason why assimilation is so often misunderstood is that its use as an explanatory postulate ranges from the unconscious to the deliberate. Another stems from disregarding the fact that Piaget uses that term, as well as “accommodation,” within the framework of his theory of schemes. An example may help to illustrate the two extreme forms of assimilation.
When the nail that holds up the wire to my computer falls out of the wall in my study and I use my shoe to hammer it in again, I am deliberately assimilating the shoe to the function of a hammer. It may work, or it may not, but even if it does work I am not led to believe that the shoe is a hammer. The other farm of assimilation – the one so many developmental psychologsts have misappropriated from Piaget – lacks that awareness. It is this second form that is epistemologically more interesting.
An infant quickly learns that a rattle it was given makes a rewarding noise when it is shaken. This provides the infant with the ability to generate the noise. Piaget sees this as the “construction of a scheme” which, like all schemes, consists of three parts:
Recognition of a certain situation (e.g. the presence of a graspable item with a rounded shape at one end);association of a specific activity with that kind of item (e.g. picking it up and shaking it);expectation of a certain result (e.g. the rewarding noise).
It is very likely that this infant, when placed in its high-chair at the dining table, will pick up and shake a graspable item that has a rounded shape at one end. We call that item a spoon and may say that the infant is assimilating it to its rattling scheme; but from the infant’s perspective at that point, the item is a rattle. It is a rattle because what the infant perceives of it is just those aspects that fit the rattling scheme – and not what an adult would perceive as the characteristics of a spoon.[Note 2] Then, however, when the infant shakes the item, it does not produce the result the infant expects: it does not rattle. This generates a perturbation (“disappointment”), and perturbation is one of the conditions that set the stage for cognitive change. In our example it may simply focus the infant’s attention on the item in its hand, and this may lead to the perception of some aspect that will enable the infant in the future to recognize spoons as non-rattles. That development would be an accommodation, but obviously a rather modest one. Alternatively, given the situation at the dining table, it is not unlikely that the spoon, being vigorously shaken, will hit the table and produce a different but also very rewarding noise. This, too, will generate a perturbation (we might call it “enchantment”) which may lead to a different accommodation, a major one this time, that initiates the “spoon banging scheme” which most parents know only too well.
This simple illustration of scheme theory also shows that the theory involves, on the part of the observer, certain presuppositions about cognizing organisms. The organism is supposed to possess at least the following capabilities: [Note 3]
The ability and, beyond that, the tendency to establish recurrences in the flow of experience; this, in turn, entails at least two capabilities,remembering and retrieving (re-presenting) experiences,and the ability to make comparisons and judgements of similarity and difference;apart from these, there is the presupposition that the organism likes certain experiences better than others, which is to say, it has some elementary values.
The first three of these are indispensable in any theory of learning. Even the parsimonious models of classical and operant conditioning could not do without them. As to the fourth, the assumption of elementary values, it was explicitly embodied in Thorndike’s Law of Effect: “Other things being equal, connections grow stronger if they issue in satisfying states of affairs” (Thorndike 1971/1966, p. 101). It remained implicit in psychological learning theories since Thorndike, but the subjectivity of what is “satisfying” was more or less deliberately obscured by behaviorists through the use of the more objective sounding term “reinforcement.”
The learning theory that emerges from Piaget’s work can be summarized by saying that cognitive change and learning take place when a scheme, instead of producing the expected result, leads to perturbation, and perturbation, in turn, leads to accommodation that establishes a new equilibrium. Learning and the knowledge it creates, thus, are explicitly instrumental. But here, again, it is crucial not to be rash and too simplistic in interpreting Piaget. His theory of cognition involves a two-fold instrumentalism. On the sensory-motor level, action schemes are instrumental in helping organisms to achieve goals in their interaction with their experiential world. On the level of reflective abstraction, however, operative schemes are instrumental in helping organisms achieve a coherent conceptual network that reflects the paths of acting as well as thinking which, at the organisms’ present point of experience, have turned out to be viable. The first instrumentality might be called “utilitarian” (the kind philosphers have traditionally scorned). The second, however, is strictly “epistemic.” As such, may be of some philosophical interest – above all because it entails a radical shift in the conception of “knowledge,” a shift that eliminates the paradoxical conception of Truth that requires a forever unattainable ontological test. The shift that substitutes viability in the experiential world for correspondence with ontological reality applies to knowledge that results from inductive inferences and generalizations. It does not affect deductive inferences in logic and mathematics. In Piaget’s view, the certainty of conclusions in these areas pertains to mental operations and not to sensory – motor material (cf. Beth & Piaget 1961; Glasersfeld, 1985b).
The Social Component
In connection with the concept of viability, be it “utilitarian” or “epistemic,” social interaction plays an important role. Except for animal psychologists, social interaction refers to what goes on among humans and involves language. As a rule it is also treated as essentially different from the interactions human organisms have with other items in their experiential field, because it is more or less tacitly assumed that humans are from the very outset privileged experiential entities. Constructivists have no intention of denying this intuitive human prerogative. But insofar as their theory of knowing attempts to model the cognitive development that provides the individual organism with all the furniture of his or her experiential field, they want to avoid assuming any cognitive structures or categories as innate. Hence, there is the need to hypothesize a model for the conceptual genesis of “others.”
On the sensory-motor level, the schemes a developing child builds up and manages to keep viable will come to involve a large variety of “objects.” There will be cups and spoons, building blocks and pencils, rag dolls and teddy bears – all seen, manipulated, and familiar as components of diverse action schemes. But there may also be kittens and perhaps a dog. Though the child may at first approach these items with action schemes that assimilate them to dolls or teddy bears, their unexpected reactions will quickly cause novel kinds of perturbation and inevitable accommodations. The most momentous of these accommodations can be roughly characterized by saying that the child will come to ascribe to these somewhat unruly entities certain properties that radically differentiate them from the other familiar objects. Among these properties will be the ability to move on their own, the ability to see and to hear, and eventually also the ability to feel pain. The ascription of these properties arises simply because, without them, the child’s interactions with kittens and dogs cannot be turned into even moderately reliable schemes.
A very similar development may lead to the child’s construction of schemes that involve still more complex items in her experiential environment, namely the human individuals who, to a much greater extent than other recurrent items of experience, make interaction unavoidable. (As we all remember, in many of these inescapable interactions, the schemes that are developed aim at avoiding unpleasant consequences rather than creating rewarding results.) Here again, in order to develop relatively reliable schemes, the child must impute certain capabilities to the objects of interaction. But now these ascriptions comprise not only perceptual but also cognitive capabilities, and soon these formidable “others” will be seen as intending, making plans, and being both very and not at all predictable in some respects. Indeed, out of the manifold of these frequent but nevertheless special interactions, there eventually emerges the way the developing human individual will think both of “others” and of him- or herself.
This reciprocity is I believe, precisely what Kant had in mind when he wrote:
It is manifest that, if one wants to imagine a thinking being, one would have to put oneself in its place and to impute one’s own subject to the object one intended to consider… (Kant 1781, p. 223)
My brief account of the conceptual construction of “others” is no doubt a crude and preliminary analysis but it at least opens a possibility of approaching the problem without the vacuous assumption of innateness. Besides, the Kantian notion that we impute the cognitive capabilities that we isolate in ourselves to our conspecifics, leads to an explanation of why it means so much to us to have our experiential reality confirmed by others. The use of a scheme always involves the expectation of a more or less specific result. On the level of reflective abstraction, the expectation can be turned into a prediction. If we impute planning and foresight to others, this means that we also impute to them some of the schemes that have worked well for ourselves. Then, if a particular prediction we have made concerning an action or reaction of an other turns out to be corroborated by what the other does, this adds a second level of viability to our scheme; and this second level of viability strengthens the experiential reality we have constructed. (cf. Glasersfeld 1985a, 1986)
A Perspective on Communication
The technical model of communication (Shannon 1948) established one feature of the process that remains important no matter from what orientation one approaches it: The physical signals that travel from one communicator to another – for instance the sounds of speech and the visual patterns of print or writing in linguistic communication – do not actually carry or contain what we think of as “meaning.” Instead, they should be considered instructions to select particular meanings from a list which, together with the list of agreed signals, constitutes the “code” of the particular communication system. From this it follows that, if the two lists and the conventional associations that link the items in them are not available to a receiver before the linguistic interaction takes place, the signals will be meaningless for that receiver.
From the constructivist point of view, this feature of communication is of particular interest because it clearly brings out the fact that language users must individually construct the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, and texts. Needless to say, this semantic construction does not always have to start from scratch. Once a certain amount of vocabulary and combinatorial rules (“syntax”) have been built up in interaction with speakers of the particular language, these patterns can be used to lead a learner to form novel combinations and, thus, novel conceptual compounds.
But the basic elements out of which an individual’s conceptual structures are composed and the relations by means of which they are held together cannot be transferred from one language user to another, let alone from a proficient speaker to an infant. These building blocks must be abstracted from individual experience; and their interpersonal fit, which makes possible what we call communication, can arise only in the course of protracted interaction, through mutual orientation and adaptation (cf. Maturana, 1980).
Though it is often said that normal children acquire their language without noticeable effort, a closer examination shows that the process involved is not as simple as it seems. If, for instance, you want your infant to learn the word “cup,” you will go through a routine that parents have used through the ages. You will point to and then probably pick up and move, an object that satisfies your definition of “cup,” and at the same time you will repeatedly utter the word. It is likely that mothers and fathers do this “intuitively,” i.e., without a well-formulated theoretical basis. They do it because it usually works. But the fact that it works does not mean that it has to be a simple matter. There are at least three essential steps the child has to make.
The first consists in focusing attention on some specific sensory signals, in the manifold of signals which, at every moment, are available within the child’s sensory system; the parent’s pointing provides a merely approximate and usually quite ambiguous direction for this act.
The second step consists in isolating and coordinating a group of the sensory signals to form a more or less discrete visual item or “thing.” The parent’s moving the cup greatly aids this process because it accentuates the relevant figure as opposed to the parts of the visual field that are to form the irrelevant ground.[Note 4]
The third step, then, is to associate the isolated visual pattern with the auditory experience produced by the parent’s utterances of the word “cup.” Again, the child must first isolate the sensory signals that constitute this auditory experience from the background (the manifold auditory signals that are available at the moment); and the parent’s repetition of the word obviously enhances the process of isolating the auditory pattern as well as its association with the moving visual pattern.
If this sequence of steps provides an adequate analysis of the initial acquisition of the meaning of the word “cup,” it is clear that the child’s meaning of that word is made up exclusively of elements which the child abstracts from her on experience. Indeed, anyone who has more or less methodically watched children acquire the use of new words, will have noticed that what they isolate as meanings from their experiences in conjunction with words is often only partially compatible with the meanings the adult speakers of the language take for granted. Thus the child’s initial concept of cup often includes the activity of drinking, and sometimes even what is being drunk, e.g., milk. Indeed, it may take quite some time before the continual linguistic and social interaction with other speakers of the language provides occasions for the accommodations that are necessary for the concept the child associates with the word “cup” to become adapted to the adults’ extended use of the word, for instance, in the context of golf greens or championships in sport.
The process of accommodating and tuning the meaning of words and linguistic expressions actually continues for each of us throughout. our lives. No matter how long we have spoken a language, there will still be occasions when we realize
that up to that point, we have been using a word in a way that now turns out to be idiosyncratic in some particular respect.
Once we come to see this essential and inescapable subjectivity of linguistic meaning, we can no longer maintain the preconceived notion that words convey ideas or knowledge: nor can we believe that a listener who apparently “understands” what we say must necessarily have conceptual structures that are identical wth ours. Instead, we come to realize that “understanding” is a matter of fit rather than match. Put in the simplest way, to understand what someone has said or written means no less but also no more than to have built up a conceptual structure that in the given context, appears to be compatible with the structure the speaker had in mind – and this compatibility, as a rule, manifests itself in no other way than that the receiver says and does nothing that contravenes the speaker’s expectations.
Among proficient speakers of a language, the individual’s conceptual idiosyncrasies rarely surface when the topics of conversation are everyday objects and events. To be considered proficient in a given language requires two things among others: to have available a large enough vocabulary, and to have constructed and sufficiently accommodated and adapted the meanings associated with the words of that vocabulary so that no conceptual discrepancies become apparent in ordinary linguistic interactions. When conversation turns to predominantly abstract matters, it usually does not take long before conceptual discrepancies become noticeable – even among proficient speakers. The discrepancies generate perturbations in the interactors, and at that point the difficulties become insurmountable if the participants believe that the meanings they attribute to the words they use are true representations of fixed entities in an objective world apart from any speaker. If, instead, the participants take a constructivist view and assume that a language user’s meanings cannot be anything but subjective constructs derived from the speaker’s individual experiences, some accommodation and adaptation is usually possible.
From this perspective, the use of language – for instance in teaching – is far more complicated than it is mostly presumed to be. It cannot be a means of transferring “information” or knowledge to the student. As Rorty says: “The activity of uttering sentences is one of the things people do in order to cope with their environment” (1982, p. XVII).
This inherent and inescapable indeterminacy of linguistic communication is something the best teachers have always known. Intuitively, they have also been aware of the fact that students whose cognitive structures are not “perturbed” by an experience they themselves register as a failure, will not “accommodate” to form new concepts and new understanding, but continue to “assimilate” new experiences to the structures they already have. Thus, independently of any epistemological orientation, they have always known that “telling” is not enough, because understanding is not a matter of passively receiving but of actively building up.
Some Further Considerations
The pattern of assimilation is a pattern of maintaining categorizations, concepts, and, indeed, whole theories until some experience makes their adequacy questionable. It is a universal pattern from the constructivist point of view. Whenever a thinking subject has theories and concepts that have proved useful in the past, the subject has, as it were, a considerable vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That is to say, the holders-of a theory will assimilate new experiences as long as they possibly can, even in the face of considerable perturbations.
Silvio Ceccato, the Italian pioneer in the analysis of mental operations and construction, once after a public discussion of his work, overheard an aged philosopher say: “If Ceccato were right, the rest of us would be fools!”[Note 5]
Most readers of the works of Piaget and the contemporary constructivists are not as direct and outspoken. Instead, they desperately try to assimilate what they read and hear, disregarding all sorts of clues and bending the interpretation of words to their own notions; and when this proves impossible, they conclude that the author is contradicting himself, because what he says is no longer compatible with their own conceptual construction. In this vein, they often brand constructivism as just another form of solipsism. But in doing so, they of course disregard the fact that constructivism does not deny an ontological reality – it merely holds that no such reality can be known.
Radical constructivism is unashamedly instrumentalist (in the philosophical sense of that term) and this cannot but offend advocates of the maxim “Truth for Truth’s sake.” Consequently, if they don’t call it solipsism, they dismiss it as cheap materialism. But this, again, is inappropriate. The instrumentalism embodied in constructivism is not to be equated with materialism. The second principle listed above states that the function of the cognitive activity is adaptive. The concept of adaptation intended here, as I said before, is the basic biological concept in the Darwinian theory of evolution. It refers to the fit with the environment, which is to say, every species or organism found alive and capable of reproducing must, by that very fact, be considered adapted at that moment in the history of living organisms. To be adapted, therefore, means no more and no less than to be viable.
For the observing biologist, of course, this viability refers to the fit with an environment that is external to the organism. But precisely because the biologist is an observer, this environment cannot be the “world-in-itself.” From the constructivist point of view, to observe means to focus attention on a specific part of one’ experiential field. Usually, the focusing of attention involves categorizing what, one focuses on as an item of a particular kind, a property, a relation, a thing, a process, etc. The moment such a categorization is made, the rest of one’s experiential field becomes the item’s environment. This is analogous to the simultaneous creation of a “figure” and its “ground.” There, too, the moment the line drawn by the pencil becomes categorizable as an image of a particular item, the rest of the sheet is inevitably seen as “ground.” The observer’s discrimination of figure and ground or organism and environment is, of course, quite legitimate, and so is the biologists subsequent observation of specific relationships between the observed organisms and their environment. But once it is understood that all this discriminating, categorizing, and establishing of relationships takes place within the observer’s experiential field, it becomes clear that no result of these operations can pertain to the world as such, that is, the world as it might “exist” objectively without the observer’s activities.
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Montaigne wrote this in his Apologie de Raymond Sebond (1575-76) and it can be found on p.139 of volume 2 of the complete edition of his Essais, edited by Pierre Michel (Paris, 1972).
This notion of assimilation seems quite compatibe with the view of philosophers of science who maintain that all observation is necessarily “theory-laden.”3
Piaget nowhere lists these presuppositions, but they are implicit in his analysis of conceptual development (cf., for instance, Piaget, 1937 and 1967b).
Note that, even if the child has coordinated sensory signals to form such a “thing” in the past, each new recognition involves isolating it in the current experiential field.
I owe this anecdote to a personal communication: Silvio Ceccato told it to me shortly after the event, sometime about 1960.
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