CEPA eprint 1442 (EVG-154)

Questions rather than answers

Glasersfeld E. von (1993) Questions rather than answers. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 1(4): 57–59. Available at http://cepa.info/1442
At the end of his paper, Dave Johnson says that philosophy is a kind of narrative. I agree – and, as I have said many times, my story makes no claim to be “true” or to describe a “real” world; it wants to illustrate a way of thinking I have found useful. Ihave told it often enough, sometimes better than at others.
Dave makes some claims here that prompt me to ask questions:
p.2: You say that, unless one makes the distinction “between what we think or say of the world and the way the world is,” it makes no sense to claim that a certain wall was once a mere collection of stones.
Qu.: Why should this be so? It surely would be a sensible claim for the person who transformed a collection of stones into a wall, and it would be a sensible claim on my part, if I could tell from the look of the wall that, with the help of a sledge hammer, it could be transformed again. into a collection of stones. I am dealing with nothing but experiential items and operations which, in my past experience, have proved fairly viable in the context of building walls and knocking them down. Why, in either of the two cases, should I have to worry about “the way the world is”? Or are you simply begging the question by assuming that my experience is necessarily determined by “the way the world is”?
p.2: “When Icannot predict the weather, I look beyond myself to nature, its form and conditions, for an explanation.”
Qu.: Precisely: You look – and what you see is what you see, and it can hardly have any but the “forms” and “conditions” that you ascribe to it. In other words, you’re expanding your experiential horizon and you call what you see “nature” – but it’s still part of your own experience – or do you want to spell nature with a capital N, implying that it is what Vico called “God’s world”? “The world itself” is your phrase 7 shouldn’t you explain how you can come to “see” or “known” it, when all you have are concepts and conceptual operations that were derived from your experience?
p.5: “It is a truism that every theory of knowing has psychological and ontological assumptions.”
Qu.: This sounds as though you were subscribing to the rather recent fad of confounding ontological assumptions with theoretical presuppositions. Would you go so far as to say that Euclid’s Elements are ontological assumptions, rather than presuppositions for his geometry? If you do, wouldn’t you have to say that Riemann based his theory on a different ontology? And would it not follow from this that the “ontic” world must be either Euclidean or Riemannian? Or could there be different “ontic” worlds? – Anyway who decreed that it was unlawful to design a model of the experiential world based on a number of presuppositions that explicitly disclaim any ontological assumptions?
p.5: “Notice, too, that questions of ontology and epistemology are reciprocally related from the start: …”
Qu.: The start of what? Our evaluation of “the conditions for success or failure” and our wondering how our thoughts might “relate to a world outside thought”? Why, after 2500 years of fruitless wondering, is it so reprehensible to try something. else, viz., to sec how far one gets in constructing a model of the human knower and his or her “knowledge” that does not assume the knowability of ontological reality?
p.7: The two quoted phrases of mine do embarrass me now. I have learned how important it is to stress that one can never be sure of ontic constraints (this was implicit in the context – hence: ).
Qu.: I wonder why you seem to have disregarded what followed the second quotation, namely: “…since this ‘reality’ manifests itself only in failures of our acting and/or thinking, we have no way of describing it except in terms of actions and thoughts that turned out to be unsuccessful (i.e. negatively)?
p.9: “Other times, constructivists sound more like realists, freely invoking the posits of commonsense and science …”
Qu.: Are “posits” not constructs? Would you not agree that the history of science is a great hunting ground for examples of posits that were considered “true,” but turned out not to be viable in new or expanded domains of experience?
p.10: “ … since every instance of some x “fitting” the constraints of the world (meaning-1) will entail a positive description of that world; namely, that it so structured as to allow x to occur.
Qu.: Does this not mean that there is an infinite number of “world-1” structures that would “allow x to occur,” and that occurrences of x, therefore, bring us no nearer to a “positive description of that “world-1”?
p.13: “Notice that this claim involves both realism (the idea of a reality beyond the isolated subject) and idealism (the idea of cognitive isolation).”
Qu.: I’m glad you supply your definitions of these terms. -Now I can agree that I am a “realist” of your sort (but of course not in the usual sense of a realist who believes that he can make “positive descriptions” of that reality beyond). But then I am driven.to ask why your kind of “idealist” in his “cognitive isolation” should not be able and willing to accept, as so many sages have done, the notion of an unfathomable world beyond cognition?
p.13: “… constraints emanating from the world (meaning-1) that strikes the realist in von Glasersfeld as relatively invariant or universal, and not to be paraphrased away in terms of any one person’s ‘experiential world’.”
Qu.: Why “universal”? In my view, my experiential world consists of invariants that I am able to construct; and among those (relative) invariants are also the items I call “others” to whom, after a while, I impute, as Kant said, much the same constructive capabilities that I ascribe to myself. The autonomy of the others (p.14), surely, would be.put in question only if I claimed that my constructs were “true” rather than moderately viable (from my point of view)?
p.15.: “How, then, shall we defend the idea that everyday objects like cats, trees, and other people are both knowable and essentially independent of our every effort to know them?
Qu.: Indeed, how do you defend the idea of, say, cats that are independent of “our every effort to know them”?
p.17: “… we cut up the world into objects when we choose a scheme of descriptions of the world.”
Qu.: Though I am not offended by being cited together with Putnam and Rorty, here I don’t agree that the “cutting up” necessarily involves linguistic descriptions. Having lived most of my life between languages, I have come to believe that one can operate with concepts that are not altogether determined by a given language (in this, of course, I also differ from Maturana). But I would like to know how our “concepts or experience” enable us “to judge whether our theories are true of the world”?
p.17: Quotation from Weissman.
Qu.: Would it not help both Weissman and you to adopt Hans Vaihinger’s distinction between” hypothesis (=conjectures whose viability one. expects to demonstrate by experiences) and fictions ( – inventions on the basis of which one intends to make new conjectures)? (Die Philosophie des Als Ob, Berlin, 1913).
p.17: “And that noumenal world will certainly not fulfill the constraining, explanatory role constructivist idealists require of it if their theory is to avoid idealism or solipsism.”
Qu.: Why “explanatory”? You may dislike the idea that the noumenal world may have something to do with the viability of our constructs – and I have said often enough that we cannot be sure in any particular case that the constraint stems from “it” (pace Maturana – the French expression je ne sais quo would be better, agree!). I have great respect for what Vico called the poetic wisdom of mystics and poets (to whom I would add metaphysicians) but I cannot tell whether it provides them a glimpse of the noumenal. Even if it did, it could not serve as explanation in my model. Do you want to claim that an agnostic must not assume unknowable things? – If you do, what would lie be agnostic of?
If you feel like answering these questions we might get closer to specifying the differences between our views, rather than continue trying to prove the other wrong. From my constructivist point of view, as you know, problems always offer more than one way to find a solution.
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