CEPA eprint 2631

‘And they lived happily ever after’: the fairy tale of radical constructivism and von Glasersfeld’s ethical disengagement

d’Agnese V. (2015) ‘And they lived happily ever after’: the fairy tale of radical constructivism and von Glasersfeld’s ethical disengagement. Ethics and Education 10(2): 131–151. Available at http://cepa.info/2631
Table of Contents
von Glasersfeld’s theory
Contradictions and uselessness of constructivism
The ontological weakness
The ethical weakness
The logical weakness
The instrumental weakness
von Glasersfeld’s reconstruction of Western thought
The effects of radical constructivism on teachers and teaching
Education, relativism, and constructivism: some remarks
Is von Glasersfeld’s constructivism actually radical? In this article, I respond to this question by analyzing von Glasersfeld’s main works. I argue that the essential theoretical move of radical constructivism – namely the assertion that reality is the construction of a human mind that only responds to the subjective perception of ‘what fits’ – results in a conservative vision of reality, knowledge, and education. To the extent that the friction with, and the challenge of, reality is eliminated, knowledge remains only a subjective affair and the world is reduced to a living tautology. In this way, von Glasersfeld constructs a theory of ethical disengagement in which personal responsibility is de facto denied. Thus, to the extent that education entails (and, in a sense, is) responsibility, change, and comparison, radical constructivism is a theory that is unsuitable for education. I also attempt to argue that the equivalence between radical constructivism and relativism and nihilism that many support is incorrect; relativism and nihilism, indeed, stem from a strong moral stance; thus, they may be educationally promising.
Key words: radical constructivism’s fairy tale; von Glasersfeld; responsibility; education; ethical disengagement
In this article, I confront von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism, which is most likely the most popular version of constructivism. I argue that this theory, despite its claims to be ‘revolutionary’ (von Glasersfeld 1988, 6) and to present a ‘profoundly shocking view’ of knowledge and reality (von Glasersfeld 2002, 1), is anything but radical.
von Glasersfeld’s perspective revolves around a foundational concept: all that anyone knows is nothing more – and nothing less – than his subjective construction of the world. Thus, von Glasersfeld’s fundamental theoretical move consists of asserting that the world and reality are no more than the ‘product of an active, constructive mind’ (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 6) that only responds to a subjective perception of ‘what fits.’ This subjective construction of the world, in von Glasersfeld’s account, remains – from beginning to end – a product of the individual mind. von Glasersfeld states this very clearly: ‘[Radical constructivism] starts from the assumption that knowledge, no matter how it be defined, is in the heads of persons’ (2002, 1). Thus, the reduction of the world and reality to subjective knowledge and, in turn, of subjective knowledge to a product only located in – and produced by – ‘the individual mind’ is central to von Glasersfeld’s position. Such a position, combined with the impossibility of trusting in the existence of others (von Glasersfeld 1989, 4), clearly indicates the uselessness of communication. To the extent that experience and knowledge are conceived in such terms, neither sharing or comparison of nor proof or arguments for a given self-construction may be furnished or discussed. Thus, human beings are reduced to a constructive mind and, in turn, experience is reduced to untouchable subjective knowledge. Thus, if the only ‘real’ thing is one’s own experience, and, as a result, each person is the only judge of his own experience, everyone, in turn, is entrapped in a living tautology; as a result, it becomes impossible to challenge given positions, and the world becomes frozen as it is – or as one conceives of it. By framing experience and knowledge this way, the solipsistic drift seems to be unavoidable. The consequence, as I hope to argue in the fifth section, is clearly an inability to frame education, which has always been conceived as a matter of relationships, comparison, and transformation.
However, this view is not the sole problem with radical constructivism. von Glasersfeld’s theory has several limitations, including the following: (1) it presents several internal contradictions and its primary principle, viability, I argue, contradicts itself; (2) it is based on a rather superficial conceptualization of the Western thought, which is depicted in a manner that serves strictly to assert his own perspective; and (3) from an instrumentalist perspective (the one claimed by von Glasersfeld), there are many doubts about the usefulness of this theory. However, despite its inconsistency – or perhaps precisely because of it – the precepts that von Glasersfeld presents based on his theory, intended for teachers and teaching, are not necessarily dangerous. Indeed, as I argue, his precepts include some of the best principles that every ‘good teacher’ knows. My contribution is developed in five steps:
In the first section, I will summarize the main concepts of von Glasersfeld’s theory through an analysis of his works; in particular, I will discuss both the concept of world as a subjective construction and viability as the primary principle of radical constructivism.In the second section, I will attempt to explain where and why von Glasersfeld’s theory is contradictory and why there are several doubts about its usefulness. I will argue, specifically, that radical constructivism presents four weakness: (1) an ontological weakness: von Glasersfeld, at several points in his works, states, on the one hand, that radical constructivism is only a theory of knowledge, which does not entail any ontological assertion; on the other hand, he makes several ontological statements, thereby constructing a well-defined ontology of human experience; (2) an ethical weakness: reducing everything to an unassailable subjective experience, von Glasersfeld precludes any comparison with the world and with others, eliminating the two basic conditions for ethics, namely (a) the relational dimension and (b) the existence of – or the search for – a common ground. Thus, radical constructivism, despite its claim to be a philosophy of responsibility (von Glasersfeld and Varela 1987, 10), results in a theory of ethical disengagement; (3) a logical weakness: the very concept of viability, the foundation for the whole of von Glasersfeld’s theory, as I argue, is itself contradictory; and (4) an instrumental weakness: it is uncertain whether radical constructivism presents a benefit in comparison to the theory it aims to supersede. These weaknesses – above all, the ethical one – evoke strong doubts about the educational ‘use’ of radical constructivism.In the third section, I argue that von Glasersfeld founds his theory on a rather superficial understanding of the history of philosophy, which is depicted in a simplistic and inaccurate manner. In addition, he fundamentally misunderstands his landmark, namely Vico.In the fourth section, I analyze the effects of radical constructivism on teachers and teaching. I argue, through the analysis of von Glasersfeld’s works that are directed toward teachers and teaching, that von Glasersfeld’s theory does not have any significant bearing on either the theoretical or practical aspects of the field of education. Therefore, constructivist pedagogy, rather than bringing about ‘some rather profound changes in the general practice of education’ (von Glasersfeld 1989, 11), is almost innocuous.In the fifth section, I address the issue of relativism in education. I argue that the equivalence – or, at least, the strong comparison – that many have noted between radical constructivism on the one hand and relativism and nihilism on the other is incorrect; relativism and nihilism, since their origin, stem from a true moral stance, which, according to Nietzsche ([1882] 2001), involves the will to truth as our first duty. From Nietzsche onward, indeed, we can understand that truth and science ‘stand on a moral ground’ (Nietzsche [1882] 2001, 201). This foundation, which grounds education in truth and ethics, may be educationally promising.
von Glasersfeld’s theory
Perhaps the best way to recall what radical constructivism is rests upon revisiting von Glasersfeld’s own words. In his most systematic treatise on radical constructivism, he states the following:
What is radical constructivism? It is an unconventional approach to the problems of knowledge and knowing. It starts from the assumption that knowledge, no matter how it be defined, is in the heads of persons, and that the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience. What we make of experience constitutes the only world we consciously live in. It can be sorted into many kinds, such as things, self, others, and so on. However, all kinds of experience are essentially subjective, and though I may find reasons to believe that my experience may not be unlike yours, I have no way of knowing that it is the same. The experience and interpretation of language are no exception. Taken seriously, this is a profoundly shocking view. (von Glasersfeld 2002, 1)
The previous quote, I believe, is explicit enough in itself; by maintaining that knowledge is located only in ‘the heads of persons,’ von Glasersfeld argues that ‘all kinds of experience [become] essentially subjective.’ Thus, experience is reduced to knowledge which, in turn, is reduced to subjective construction. Consequently, neither sharing or comparison of nor proof or argument for a given construction may be furnished or evaluated; communication is also fundamentally denied, for the very reason that one is only able to be aware of his own knowledge. This denial of communication can also be seen in another question raised by von Glasersfeld, namely the impossibility of trusting in the existence of others; as he states clearly in a previous work, ‘the others with whom the subject may interact socially cannot be posited as an ontological given’ (von Glasersfeld 1989, 4). I will attempt to further analyze this statement and its meaning; however, it may be useful to first furnish an account of the term ‘knowledge’ as von Glasersfeld conceives of it. Although von Glasersfeld does not furnish a specific account of its meaning, the term seems to entail a wide range of meanings: perception, thinking, and, to a certain extent, emotions are all encompassed by it. ‘Knowledge,’ in von Glasersfeld’s theory, seems to be the substitute for the term ‘experience’ in the wider sense of its meaning. In von Glasersfeld’s words, knowledge is, indeed, ‘[w]hat we make of experience’ (von Glasersfeld 1989), whereas experience is all we can feel and think about the world. It is important to bear in mind that the latter term, the world, which entails the space in which our experience occurs, is largely erased by von Glasersfeld; in his view, the space in which experience occurs is limited to ‘the head of persons’ (von Glasersfeld 2002, 1).1 It seems that we have no way out; everyone is locked in his own world. Thus, the question of experience is framed – and, to a certain extent, entrapped – by this relocation from the world to individuals’ heads. The best way I find to define von Glasersfeld’s concept of experience is a very tautological one: an experience is what we think it is and, in turn, the world is as we think it is. As a result, everything is as we conceive of it.
However, here we run into the question of how to explain the function and, to a certain extent, the birth of knowledge, because von Glasersfeld has eliminated the term by which knowledge came into the world, namely the world itself. To explain the knowledge – reality relationship, von Glasersfeld uses the metaphor of a key and a lock:
From the radical constructivist perspective, ‘knowledge’ fits reality in much the same way that a key fits a lock that it is able to open. The fit describes a capacity of the key, not a property of the lock. When we face a novel problem, we are in much the same position as the burglar who wishes to enter a house. The ‘key’ with which he successfully opens the door might be a paper clip, a bobby pin, a credit card, or a skillfully crafted skeleton key. All that matters is that it fits within the constraints of the particular lock and allows the burglar to get in. (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 8)
Thus, in von Glasersfeld’s theory, all we can state about the world and experience is whether the key that we use is successful with respect to the lock we meet. The way in which the key fits the lock is ‘viability.’ Thus, knowledge and experience consist only in their capacity to solve the problems we meet, constructing a viable way within the ‘constraints’ we run into.
This is not an isolated passage; in another work, von Glasersfeld makes a similar assertion, speaking of people in terms of a ‘sensory system’ and of the world in terms of ‘constraints’ upon which the ‘sensory system’ has an impact (von Glasersfeld 1990). Other people, too, are affected by the same destiny and, in a sense, they are reduced to any other thing we run into: ‘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’ (von Glasersfeld 1989, 4). As I argue in more detail in the following section, it is meaningful that von Glasersfeld seems to make no distinction between the living world and the nonliving world: all is indifferently framed under the construct ‘constraints.’
Thus, summarizing the primary concepts of von Glasersfeld’s theory, we can see that (1) the world is reduced to subjective experience, which, in turn, is solely dependent on a knowledge existing only ‘in the heads of persons’; (2) the existence of any reality out of such subjective experience, including the existence of others, is an arbitrary construction; and (3) the relationship with the external is framed in terms of ‘constraints’ and ‘viability’ is the way in which our knowledge fits through such constraints. This fit, in von Glasersfeld’s account, does not imply any existence – any ‘ontological reality’ – except the existence of viability itself. In what follows, I argue that this perspective has several weakness and contradictions that affect its very basis.
Contradictions and uselessness of constructivism
The ontological weakness
Let us compare these two statements made by von Glasersfeld: (1) ‘Here, once more, it is of paramount importance to remember that radical constructivism is a theory of knowledge and not an ontology. It addresses what we call knowledge, not “existence” or the world of “being”’ (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 12); and (2) ‘the world we live in, the environment in which we find ourselves, has the structure that we ourselves have imposed on it by our ways of perceiving and conceptualizing’ (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983).
In my opinion, there is an open contradiction between these two statements, a contradiction that affects the very basis of von Glasersfeld’s work. The contradiction lies in von Glasersfeld’s disengagement with ‘existence’ and ‘being.’ Such disengagement, indeed, is more declared than performed. In the latter quote, von Glasersfeld speaks of ‘the world we live in,’ ‘the environment in which we find ourselves,’ and ‘the structure that we have imposed on it.’ In other words, he uses several concepts with a clear reference to reality, and he makes this reference at several points in his works. Of course, this is not a sin to the extent one is aware of such a stance. Every one of us wishes to furnish an account of the ‘world,’ our ‘experience,’ and our ‘education’ by stating what exists, what counts, and what makes sense. The problem arises when, on the one hand, one denies an ontological dimension, while, on the other hand, one plunges into it. Thus, when von Glasersfeld speaks about ‘the environment in which we find ourselves,’ he acknowledges that we are in an environment and that this environment exists; when he states that this environment ‘has the structure that we ourselves have imposed on it,’ he states that this structure exists, and so on.
It is important to emphasize that it does not matter if this environment and world are ‘external’ or only ‘in the mind of persons’; to the extent that von Glasersfeld speaks about such entities in an affirmative way, at the very same time, he establishes their existence. In other words, von Glasersfeld establishes his concepts of the world and the environment as the ontological given upon which his theory is built.2 In such statements, he is inconsistent in his claim to address only ‘what we call knowledge, not “existence” or the world of “being.”’ The point I raise is not – I hope – a logical trick to invalidate von Glasersfeld’s account of knowledge. The point I wish to make is that, above all, von Glasersfeld has constructed an ontology of experience. That is, he has developed a theory about what exists and what does not exist and, based on this ontology, he has given an account of how knowledge works. It is exactly this stance that serves to give his theory the aspect of a monad that is wholly divided from reality. von Glasersfeld’s main task seems to be to construct an unshakable tower, unresponsive to comparison.
As he clearly states, ‘the world we live in, the environment in which we find ourselves, has the structure that we ourselves have imposed on it by our ways of perceiving and conceptualizing’ (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 12). To the extent that one can impose her or his own structure upon the world, the world ceases to be the environment in which we live and becomes a product of our mind, that is, the basic principle of von Glasersfeld’s theory. Our knowledge and experience do not arise as parts of the world; rather, in a sense, they become substitutes for the world. Change and evolution (and, thus, education) require open relationships and interconnections; education, in its engagement with others, requires us to consider ideas and perspectives that could radically differ from our own (Standish 1992; Gur-Ze’ev 2002; Biesta 2009).
In contrast, in von Glasersfeld’s account of knowledge, the world is entrapped in the imposition of our ‘ways of perceiving and conceptualizing.’ It is important to highlight how this entrapment of the world in the subject’s knowledge is, at the same time, the entrapment of the subject in her or his own perspective. In von Glasersfeld’s understanding of experience, all is blocked; in the end, it is impossible for anyone to be challenged by another’s perspective. Everyone lives in her or his tautological world. That is why I think the more reasonable consequence of radical constructivism is the preservation of status quo, and that is why, to the extent that education entails (and, in a sense, is) change and comparison, radical constructivism is a theory that is unsuitable for education.
Returning to the point made above, namely the ontological weakness of radical constructivism, I quote another example of the type of contradiction that von Glasersfeld’s account represents. In explaining that ‘meanings are subjective constructs,’ von Glasersfeld states that ‘the semantic connections between words and concepts are shaped and modified by success and failure in the continual social interactions with speakers of our language’ (1988, 5). Nevertheless, it is one or the other: either I conceive of meanings as only a subjective construction, as von Glasersfeld’s theory seems to suggest, or I conceive of them as the result of social interactions with other speakers. Nevertheless, to the extent that von Glasersfeld raises strong doubts about the existence of other speakers, I cannot see how such interaction should be possible.
If I am allowed to reframe von Glasersfeld’s account of communication, we can find a more consistent version of it in von Glasersfeld (1983, 5):
Once we realize that words cannot refer to things that exist independently of an experiencer but only to speakers’ and hearers’ representations of experiences, it becomes clear that communication is possible only within the bounds of what Maturana has called a ‘consensual domain,’ i.e., a domain in which the communicators have adapted their conceptualizations to the conceptualizations of others by a succession of interactive experiences.
Here, von Glasersfeld seems to recognize the existence of other people as the basis for a consistent account of communication. The problem is that, put in this way, his theory consists of a simplification – or, at least, a repetition – of Dewey’s theory about communication, explained in Experience and Nature, as ‘the establishment of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners, and in which the activity of each is modified and regulated by partnership’ (von Glasersfeld 2000, 2; Dewey 1929, 179).3
Here, I attempt to provide a closer examination of a von Glasersfeld (2000) work in which he provides a synthesis of his thought. He states that radical constructivism
holds that knowledge is under all circumstances constructed by individual thinkers as an adaptation to their subjective experience. This is its working hypothesis and from it follows that for a constructivist there cannot be anything like a dogmatic body of unquestionable knowledge. The task is to show that and how what is called knowledge can be built up by individual knowers within the sensory and conceptual domain of individual experience and without reference to ontology. (von Glasersfeld 2000, 2)
In this statement, we can find a fundamental contradiction: how can we conceive of knowledge as ‘constructed by individual thinkers as an adaptation to their subjective experience’? To the extent that my subjective experience is entirely constructed by my sensory and conceptual domain (von Glasersfeld 1990), subjective knowledge will coincide with this subjective experience. In other words, I cannot discern the difference between knowledge and experience in von Glasersfeld’s theory. If I am allowed to ‘use’ Dewey to criticize radical constructivism, von Glasersfeld forgets how ‘[t]he difficulties and tragedies of life, the stimuli to acquiring knowledge, lie in the radical disparity of presence-in-experience and presence-in-knowing’ (Dewey 1917, 48). Here, Dewey has clearly identified the difference, the unfillable space between experience and knowledge – a difference denied by von Glasersfeld.
Soon after von Glasersfeld states that:
radical constructivists never say: this is how it is! They merely suggest: this may be how it functions. Knowledge can be considered as a mere tool in the knower’s struggle towards equilibration, because they are unwilling to relinquish the notion that it must somehow reflect the structure of reality. (von Glasersfeld 2000, 2)
It is crucial to highlight how exactly von Glasersfeld speaks in terms of the ‘structure of reality,’ something we can see in the following quote: ‘The world we live in, the environment in which we find ourselves, has the structure that we ourselves have imposed on it by our ways of perceiving and conceptualizing’ (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 12). As we can see, von Glasersfeld espouses a strong structure that depicts reality, and his statement seems more like dogma than like a ‘working hypothesis.’
Two pages later, von Glasersfeld states that
metaphysical assumptions [are] vacuous as long as they do not specify a functional model of how ontology might determine the experiences from which we generate our knowledge. To say that something exists does not explain how we come to know it. (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 4)
Here, von Glasersfeld frames ontology and metaphysics in terms of instrumentalism. Of course, this viewpoint is not a sin. However, the difference, as argued above, is in the awareness of our perspective. Moreover, von Glasersfeld, unlike Piaget, does not furnish in his works a clear account of how and when we come to know reality.
At this point, I am led to anticipate arguments about ethical weakness. In discussing ethics, von Glasersfeld states: ‘From my point of view, the generation of ethics will have to be part of the model we design to grasp our interactions with the experiential constructs we call “others”’ (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 4). In von Glasersfeld’s account of ethics, others are ultimately completely consumed in our ‘experiential constructs,’ and, as a consequence, ethics is a part of the model that ‘we design to grasp our interactions’ with such experiential constructs. To the extent that von Glasersfeld very clearly states that constructs depend on our mind and that experience is thoroughly resolved in a subjective manner, others, with their own existence and vulnerability, are simply denied.
The ethical weakness
The ontological weakness, in turn, leads us to the ethical weakness. In my opinion, von Glasersfeld’s statement regarding his noninvolvement in ontology is not only made to challenge Western philosophy and to construct his theory; I believe it also serves a more profound task, namely to construct an unassailable world – the world of subjective knowledge – in which all is already secure. To make this construction, von Glasersfeld had to eliminate even the possibility of failure or distress that real experience can cause. Therefore, in this theoretical move – the denial of any external reality – von Glasersfeld removes all sources of doubt, peril, and distress, namely reality and others. Here, the concept of viability plays a central role:
The substitution of the concept of fit (and its dynamic corollary, viability) for the traditional concept of truth as a matching, isomorphic, or iconic representation of reality, is the central feature of the theory of knowledge I have called Radical Constructivism. (von Glasersfeld 1983, 2)
Indeed, in von Glasersfeld’s account, ‘the term [viability] refers exclusively to the schemes of doing and thinking which the knower has constructed to organize and manage experience’ (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 10). Thus, the concept of viability, according to von Glasersfeld, entails only that something, in the here and now, fits. What this something is, why it fits, and with respect to what it fits lie outside of von Glasersfeld’s account. Based on his theory alone, one can only state that, here and now, a ‘key’ fits in a ‘lock.’ If I am correct, viability does not establish any continuity of experience or any ‘common ground’ between actors involved in shared meanings or actions – two of the basic conditions for ethics; that is why the ethical dimension is logically and factually denied by von Glasersfeld’s theory.
To view the issue from another perspective, who judges what fits and what does not? If the only thing that one can claim lies in subjective experience, every individual is the only one capable of judging his own ‘fit.’ There is no basis for comparison; every individual can say anything, depending on what one has in mind; every individual can always be happy with her/his own construction of reality.
von Glasersfeld himself gives a hint of this philosophy of placation in more than one instance throughout his work. For example, he writes that ‘viability is tied to the concept of equilibrium’ (von Glasersfeld 1996a, 7); when he discusses ‘a relatively consistent theory of knowing that makes the world we actually experience a good deal easier to comprehend’ (von Glasersfeld 1996a, 16, emphasis added); he further states that ‘[i]nsofar as learning and knowledge are instrumental in establishing and maintaining the cognizing subject’s equilibrium, they are adaptive’ (von Glasersfeld 1989, 12, emphasis added). In his theorizing, von Glasersfeld seems more concerned with subjective equilibrium than with the problems that arise from knowledge; he states this almost explicitly: ‘For the constructivist, therefore, knowledge has the function of eliminating perturbations’ (von Glasersfeld 1988, 4). This account of knowledge seems to be a paean to conservatism. Of course, this is not a problem in itself, but it is a problem in educational perspective; however, it creates a strong friction with von Glasersfeld’s claims about the revolutionary force of his theory and about the others’ ‘[r]eluctance to change their way of thinking’ (von Glasersfeld 1988). According to von Glasersfeld, indeed, the best way to eliminate such ‘perturbations’ is to deny their sources, namely the world and others. In this manner, I believe, constructivism behaves as a children’s fairy tale in that it placates the subject ever after.
von Glasersfeld’s declared intention is, of course, much different; in his estimation, radical constructivism should fully embody the question of responsibility. von Glasersfeld’s argument is that if everyone constructs his own world by himself, everyone is, consequently, fully responsible for such construction (von Glasersfeld and Varela 1987). Responsibility, in von Glasersfeld’s account, starts from the beginning and involves not only our actions and thinking but also the very source of our actions and thinking, namely our experience – framed as knowledge constructed by the subject (von Glasersfeld and Varela 1987). Nevertheless, the remaining question is: if everyone is responsible, to whom are they responsible? In von Glasersfeld’s theory, indeed, the constructor of the reality, the judge of such a construction, and even the measure and the terms of comparison for such a construction coincide. Ethics requires a relational dimension and a common ground to obtain, both of which are denied by von Glasersfeld. Thus, von Glasersfeld’s claims about responsibility operate in a vacuum; in precluding any comparison to the world and to others, his theory eliminates the very possibility of an ethical dimension, resulting in a theory of ethical disengagement.
The logical weakness
Now I argue that the primary concept of radical constructivism, namely viability, is itself contradictory. As quoted above, von Glasersfeld states that ‘knowledge fits reality in much the same way that a key fits a lock that it is able to open’ and that such fit ‘describes a capacity of the key, not a property of the lock’ (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 8). This fit is conceived in terms of a ‘viability’ that is – and this is pivotal – the only way in which one can conceive of experience. Thus, in von Glasersfeld’s account, we should be unable to establish any property of the lock. Furthermore, the existence of the lock is uncertain, to the extent that – as quoted in the previous section – one can state only that one has met some ‘constraints’ in her/his own experience. As a result, the only thing that one can state is that, here and now, an unspecified key opens an unspecified door, but only here and now. Thus, on the one hand, through the concept of viability, von Glasersfeld establishes that is impossible to state any general property about experience, while, on the other hand, he establishes viability itself as the ever-present property of every possible experience. His theory seems to be an articulated version of the well-known self-contradiction of relativism.
To demonstrate my point in a more useful way, the tension and the push to be projected into the future entail: (1) some continuity of experience and (2) the terms by which we project ourselves. These two concepts are both denied by viability. In other words, there is a basic contradiction in radical constructivism. To be consistent with his key concept, von Glasersfeld should have refrained from any instrumental prevision about what will work in the future. Thus, when he states, for example, that ‘[i]f something has been found to work, it is likely to work again’ (von Glasersfeld 1980, 3), he makes a prevision that is inconsistent with his primary concept; any assertion about what will work in the future entails the premise of something akin to the continuity of experience. von Glasersfeld must have recognized this, and in one of his works, to explain how experience works, he uses the circumlocution ‘certain regularities of interaction’ (von Glasersfeld and Varela 1987, 7). However, interaction needs two terms to occur. You cannot discuss interaction and then remove one of the terms of this interaction, namely the world.
The point is that the very concept of the ‘construction of reality’ entails a friction with and against something, so to speak, something on which to construct and something that is in front of me and independent of me. At the same time, the very concept of experience entails some form of continuity, and, in turn, continuity entails something that is being continued. The concept of ‘viability,’ instead, taken in its ‘radicalism,’ should entail the reduction of our entire experience into a continuous present, into a key that fits only in the here and now. Thus, to be consistent with viability, I must cancel viability itself because viability, in von Glasersfeld’s account, is the category and ever-present frame by which one conceives of experience.
Therefore, it is far from the truth that ‘[constructivism] refuses all metaphysical commitments and claims to be no more than one possible model of thinking about the only world we can come to know, the world we construct as living subject’ (von Glasersfeld 2002, 22, emphasis added). von Glasersfeld, in putting forth viability as the only possible way in which experience is framed, constructs, above all, an ontology of experience that aims to also be a theory of knowledge. Furthermore, despite its claim to be ‘no more than one possible model of thinking,’ such an ontology results in a totalitarian vision of knowledge; indeed, the central point of von Glasersfeld’s theory lies in establishing ‘the world we construct as living subject’ as ‘the only world we can come to know.’ To the extent that one establishes his own vision as the only knowable world, communication and shared responsibility are, de facto, eliminated from knowledge and experience.
The instrumental weakness
Hitherto I have attempted to argue that von Glasersfeld’s theory is inconsistent in its basis and, at the same time, results in ethical disengagement. Now, I will attempt to argue that, from an instrumental perspective – the perspective claimed by von Glasersfeld – it is uncertain that radical constructivism presents a benefit in comparison to the theory it aims to replace.4 I make my point by analyzing two of von Glasersfeld’s works that embody a recurrent rhetorical technique of his, namely to use complicated circumlocutions to make his point. Such circumlocutions tend to be (1) unclear, (2) almost useless, and (3) barely defensible from a logical point of view.
The first work is von Glasersfeld and Varela (1987). In this article, the two authors discuss the ‘pressure of conventional assumptions’ that can lead one to attribute ‘ontological reality to those particular constructs that I categorize as “other people”’ (von Glasersfeld and Varela 1987, 7). Allow me to quote this statement in full:
This does indeed become a problem if, succumbing to the pressure of conventional assumptions, I am misled into attributing ontological reality to those particular constructs that I categorize as ‘other people.’ Though that may be an intuitively desirable attribution, there is no logical justification for making it. The particular parts of my experience that I come to categorize as ‘other people,’ remain parts of my experience and their status cannot be different from that of any other experiential item. That is, I isolate and individuate them on the basis of the invariances and regularities that I establish, in the same way in which I have isolated and individuated all the other more or less permanent items in my field of experience. Owing to certain regularities of interaction (i.e., relations which I have established) between frogs and shadows, for instance, I was led to attribute ‘perceptual’ capabilities to the items I call frogs. […] Finally, my continual endeavour to establish invariances in my experience leads me to attribute cognitive ability i.e., the ability to construct a world, to other organisms which I then call ‘other people.’ (von Glasersfeld and Varela 1987, 7-8)
Some may argue that in speaking of human beings in terms of ‘certain regularities of interaction’ and ‘particular constructs,’ von Glasersfeld and Varela epitomize the denial of the human. I am convinced, however, that this denial of the human is unintentional. Most likely, the authors found themselves confronting the problem of how to explain, in their own theoretical terms, a primary ‘fact’ of our experience, namely the existence of other people; their explanation of what it is to be human is likely the result of this difficulty.
Moreover, also addressing the limitations in von Glasersfeld’s theory from a logical point of view, the aforementioned statement does not support their theory. Indeed, the authors give more reality to the ego (‘I categorize,’ ‘I isolate,’ ‘I call’) than to ‘other people.’ When they use the term ‘I,’ they admit, although implicitly, the existence of a subject. In addition, why prefer ‘logical justification’ to other forms of justification. In privileging the logical, constructivism sets a foundational level. It may not be any different because we all take something for granted. Without trying to establish a basis, one cannot proceed in any attempt at knowledge. Nevertheless, the very question is as follows: are concepts such as ‘certain regularities of interaction’ more powerful, simpler, or more elegant than the concept it is meant to replace – that is, ‘experience’? In my opinion, von Glasersfeld and Varela furnish neither proof of nor arguments for such an improvement.
Another passage that embodies this rhetorical technique can be seen in the following statement made by von Glasersfeld and Varela (1987):
Humberto Maturana […] warned us that ‘anything said is said by an observer.’ […] If ‘to know’ is to make distinctions in experience and then to set up relations between the parts of experience that have been distinguished, it follows quite inescapably (1) that we can know ourselves only to the extent to which we experience ourselves, and (2) that the self we do experience and incorporate into our cognitive structures, by that very act of construction, ceases to be the self that does the experiencing.(8)
In reading this statement, one should ask two questions: (1) why substitute ‘human being’ with ‘cognitive structures’? von Glasersfeld does not explain what these cognitive structures are, where they originate (by experience? by oneself?), and, furthermore, how they should work; and (2) on what basis and for what aim does von Glasersfeld divide ‘the self we do experience’ from ‘our cognitive structures’? To the extent that reality is reduced to knowledge and, in turn, knowledge is reduced to a subjective construction, one should be able to conclude that the self and the cognitive structures coincide. In radical constructivism, there is a clear multiplication of entities, counter to the essence of instrumentalism. In summary, von Glasersfeld’s theory does not respond to two of the primary demands of instrumentalism, namely (1) to be useful to the problem that is framed by the theory itself and (2) to be consistent with Ockham’s razor: between two or more theories that are equally powerful, we must choose the simpler. On the contrary, in denying the world’s existence, von Glasersfeld’s work represents a dead end, and the difficulties he confronts derive from his basic theoretical stance. The same argument can be made about his use of the concept of viability. According to Nola (1998, 51), the use of the concept ‘viability’ does not demonstrate any benefit in comparison to the ‘simple’ concepts of right and wrong; its use seems to be ‘merely a mask for talk of truth or falsity of predictions when matched against observation.’ Indeed, von Glasersfeld does not furnish a clear account of what to do when a prediction does not work – which is what an instrumentalist theory should provide as its own first aim. Moreover, by replacing ‘truth’ with ‘viability,’ radical constructivism loosens ‘the idea of a right and wrong answer in science and science education’ (Nola 1998, 55). Such ideas about ‘right and wrong’ are the basis of education to the extent that education entails engagement with our beliefs and theories – engagement with ‘our truth.’ As I hope to argue in greater detail in the fifth section, it is exactly this nihilistic/relativistic drift of truth and knowledge and its consequences for education (Smeyers et al. 2000) that lead us to frame education in terms of responsibility. This drift has little or nothing in common with radical constructivism.
von Glasersfeld’s reconstruction of Western thought
Another barely convincing point in von Glasersfeld’s theory lies in his account of the history of philosophy. von Glasersfeld’s stance toward Western thought presents at least three problems: (1) it is weak, that is, it is based on a superficial account of Western thought; (2) his account of Western thought seems to strictly function to validate his theory; thus, different authors are pigeon-holed in a manner that barely corresponds to their own theories; and (3) it is inconsistent in its understanding of his landmark, Vico, whom von Glasersfeld himself fundamentally misunderstands.
With respect to arguments (1) and (2), let us read the following:
In the philosophical tradition of the Western World, it is held that knowledge forms a sharp contrast to belief, opinion, hypothesis, and illusion. What is called ‘knowledge’ is supposed to be not only unquestionable but also independent of the knowing subject. Knowledge, therefore, is considered much more than know-how. It is intended to refer to a ‘true’ picture of the world, of objects and events, and of the rules and laws that govern them. (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 1)
I am convinced that this account could perhaps be a didactic simplification of Plato’s philosophy. Western philosophy has systematically challenged the division of knower from knowledge almost since the time of Kant, notwithstanding the problem of skepticism from Sextus Empiricus to Montaigne or Hume, to note only few names. So it is very simplistic, and at the very least misleading, to present Western thinking in this manner.
A similar account of Western thought seems to also inform von Glasersfeld’s (1988) work ‘The Reluctance to Change a Way of Thinking.’ In this article, von Glasersfeld states:
Indeed, the two basic principles of radical constructivism are: (1) Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication, but it is actively built up by the cognizing subject. (2) The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the subject’s organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality. To adopt these two principles means to relinquish the mainstays of an inveterate conceptual network. It means getting out of habitual pathways and reconceptualising a different rational view of the world. (von Glasersfeld 1988, 1)
This statement warrants a closer analysis.
Regarding the first principle – ‘Knowledge is not passively received […] but it is actively built up by the cognizing subject’ – we can see how this happens, most likely because almost a century ago, no one would have denied the importance and the role of the subject in knowing. We can even read the history of the philosophy of the last century as the offspring of the subject’s role in knowledge. Thus, it is difficult to understand how constructivism is a challenge to Western thought. The second statement seems to have simply been extracted from Piaget’s work and does not add any significant knowledge about the function of cognition. Piaget’s aim, indeed, was to explain how cognitive structures arise within the world as a part of it, how they work, and how they change throughout life. While Piaget devoted a sizeable part of his work to show how and why knowledge is adaptive and the life consequences of such a conception of knowledge, von Glasersfeld limits himself to a very superficial level; he seems to stop at the simple claim that ‘knowledge is adaptive,’ a statement with which every reasonable person should agree.
Returning to von Glasersfeld’s (2002) perfunctory reading of the history of thought, we can find another example of this stance in Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning. This book, in turn, brings us to von Glasersfeld’s understanding of Vico. In this work, von Glasersfeld provides an overview of the history of Western thought, ranging from Plato to Vico, from Protagoras to Descartes to Kant, and touches upon the history of science (from Galileo to Heisenberg), linguistics (de Saussure), literature (Joyce and Vale´ry), theology (Meyendorff), and psychology (Piaget). Of course, it is unlikely one could state something meaningful on the entirety of these works in only a few pages; the impression that is left is that von Glasersfeld provides an overview on Western thought only to assert his own theory.5 Nevertheless, I will analyze von Glasersfeld’s position with respect to Vico. As von Glasersfeld states,
[o]ne 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.’ Over and over he stresses that ‘to know’ means to know how to make.[…] Vico […] maintained that […] the human mind could know only what the human mind itself had constructed. (1996a, 4, emphasis in original)
Overall, it is remarkable that von Glasersfeld uses terms that are extraneous both to Vico’s philosophy and to eighteenth-century thought (i.e., ‘epistemic agent’ and ‘cognitive structures’). Nevertheless, this is not my main criticism: Vico ([1744] 1948), in his work, speaks in terms of ‘men.’ It is completely beyond his philosophy to establish something as an ‘epistemic agent.’ Vico’s ‘man’ is a man of flesh and blood, not an indifferent, logical subject. In addition, at a logical level, von Glasersfeld’s reference to Vico does not work. Vico claims that man can only know what he makes, not that all that man knows is made by him; the two philosophies are completely different. Vico claims that in making something, and only in making, I know what I make; he does not state that in knowing something, I make what I know. Thus, the essence of Vico’s philosophy is completely opposite to von Glasersfeld’s stance. The main aim of Vico’s theory is to get to the heart of human knowledge, so to speak; according to Vico, perfect and complete knowledge is God’s affair, and every human attempt to read God’s mind is destined to failure. Instead, men may realize the full knowledge of what men themselves make, namely history (Vico ([1744] 1948)). By contrast, in making the human mind the center of every possible source of knowledge, von Glasersfeld seems to embrace the well-known Western dream of an all- encompassing way of thinking; in von Glasersfeld’s account, the subject has the power to know everything in the world, for the very reason that everything is made by him. Thus, when Meyer states that ‘the crucial constructivist ideas mirror the mindset that was prevalent in late medieval Europe’ (2009, 336), his statement, in my opinion, only captures part of the truth. Constructivism, if I may partially reposition Meyer’s statement, is dated only in the sense that it is a summary reconstruction of selected principles from the history of philosophy.
It is interesting to highlight how von Glasersfeld’s superficial stance regarding Western thought has had consequences among some scholars, who tend to place almost every author or theory that highlights the active role of the subject in achieving knowledge under the constructivist umbrella (Phillips 1995; Davis and Sumara 2002; Hyslop-Margison and Strobel 2007). The fact is significant not only because of the importance of the scholars who have been misled but also because some of them do not seem convinced of the value of von Glasersfeld’s theory but are nonetheless influenced by his superficial stance.
This, in my opinion, is the case with Phillips (1995). In his work, he furnishes a perspective on different theories that are considered constructivist. As he states, ‘there is an enormous number of authors, spanning a broad philosophical or theoretical spectrum, who can be considered as being in some sense constructivist. The following nonexhaustive list is indicative of the range, complexity, and “symbolic force” of constructivist ideas’ (Phillips 1995, 5–6). Indeed, although he states at the beginning of his article that ‘God is in the details’ (Phillips 1995, 5), he does not hesitate to include within the constructivist field the most diverse philosophers. In my opinion, Phillips’ assertion that these diverse authors are constructivist is indeed only true ‘in some sense’ (Phillips 1995, 6). In Phillips’ account, Kant, the feminist epistemologies of Alcoff and Potter, Kuhn, Piaget, Dewey, Habermas, Vico, Locke, and Popper all qualify as constructivist. He states:
As we can see by this short pan, constructivism can be developed in interesting psychological, epistemological, sociological and historical directions. But because there are so many versions of constructivism […], it is difficult to see the forest for the trees – it is a matter of pressing concern to find some ways of categorizing them so that the overall picture does not get lost. (Phillips 1995, 6, 7)
In my opinion, the mistake is exactly this: the creation of a constructivist picture of the history of philosophy. Phillips says, ‘Constructivism can be developed in interesting psychological, epistemological, sociological and historical directions,’ forgetting that we have already encountered this development, and it is anything but constructivist. Of course, we can agree that powerful theories can reshape certain aspects of the history of thought, placing them in a new light in which they ‘construct’ their own predecessors, so to speak. However, I think that this is not the case here. I also think that this tendency does not help anyone understand either constructivism’s nature or the complexity and the beauty of such different authors.
The effects of radical constructivism on teachers and teaching
A significant part of von Glasersfeld’s work was aimed at enhancing teaching and, more generally, education (von Glasersfeld 1989, 1990, 1996b, 2001, 2002); as a result, a considerable amount of pedagogical literature on constructivism has been produced, both by authors who challenge von Glasersfeld’s perspective (see, for example, Matthews 1998; Irzik 2001; Richardson 2003; Boghossian 2006; Meyer 2009) and by authors who see merit in von Glasersfeld’s principles directed toward teachers and teaching (see, for example, Marlowe 1998; Benson 2001; Gordon 2009; Joldersma 2011).6 If there is no doubt that von Glasersfeld’s theory has had a wide appeal to the educational community, I wish to raise some doubts about the effects of his theory on teaching. Indeed, I am convinced that if we pay attention to von Glasersfeld’s precepts directed toward teachers and teaching, we will ultimately recognize them as rather good principles of the kind that every ‘good teacher’ has known for almost the last 50 years.
Let us reflect upon von Glasersfeld’s own words about the goals and the benefits of constructivism for teaching:
If the theory of knowing that constructivism builds up on this basis were adopted as a working hypothesis, it could bring about some rather profound changes in the general practice of education. […] [I]t would encourage educators to clarify the particular goals they want to attain. Curricula could be designed with more internal coherence and, consequently, would be more effective, once they deliberately separated the task of achieving a certain level of performance in a skill from that of generating conceptual understanding within a given problem area. […] Hence it is essential that the teacher have an adequate model of the conceptual network within which the student assimilates what he or she is being told. Without such a model as basis, teaching is likely to remain a hit-or-miss affair. (von Glasersfeld 1989, 11)
We can see how the aims and the issues exposed in this statement are well known in teaching practice; clarifying the particular goals teachers want to achieve, designing an effective and coherent curriculum, and generating conceptual understanding within a given problem area are well-known aims among teachers, researchers, and policy-makers alike. Moreover, von Glasersfeld does not provide either a theoretical account or practical examples of the way in which radical constructivism should improve such issues.
Another example of von Glasersfeld’s account of learning and teaching can be seen in his work listing ‘[t]he main principles of constructivist didactics’ (2001, 10). In this work, the author states the following:
(1) Teaching does not begin with the presentation of sacred truths, but with creating opportunities to trigger the students’ own thinking. One of the prerequisites for this would be that the teacher believes that students can think. […] (2) It is not sufficient for teachers to be familiar with the subject matter of the curriculum; they also have to have a repertoire of didactic situations in which the concepts that are to be built up can be involved. […] (3) Whenever students show their work, it is misguided for the teacher to say that it is ‘wrong’ […]. Students rarely produce a random solution. They have worked at it, and if the result which they consider to be right at the moment is not what the teacher thinks it should be, their effort must nevertheless be acknowledged. […] (5) If it is the case that the formation of concepts requires reflection, teachers must have available some means to provoke it.
We may see from these statements how von Glasersfeld builds his account against caricatures of teachers: a teacher who presents ‘sacred truths’, a teacher who is familiar only ‘with the subject matter of curriculum’, a teacher who does not care about students’ awareness and understanding, and a teacher who does not enhance reflection. Ironically, we can argue that such teachers are more likely to be a student’s nightmare than any ‘real’ teacher. von Glasersfeld’s works focusing on teachers and teaching seem to entail well- known good precepts of education – that is, they seem to be pulled from common-sense knowledge of teaching.
As Matthews indicates, the primary advice that radical constructivism has for teaching and learning, namely (1) highlighting the importance of understanding and reflection in learning and (2) regarding students’ own understanding as a pivotal point in teaching, are ‘pedagogical common places, the recognition of which goes back at least to Socrates’ (1998, 10). Thus, most likely, the implications of radical constructivism, as they pertain to teaching and teachers, are almost innocuous. I believe that this meaninglessness is strictly linked to the basic weakness of radical constructivism, which I have attempted to demonstrate above.
Education, relativism, and constructivism: some remarks
In this section, I attempt to address the question of relativism in education. I wish to argue that the equivalence – or, at least, the strong comparison – that many have made between radical constructivism on the one hand and relativism and nihilism on the other is incorrect. Indeed, a more in-depth analysis shows that constructivism has nothing in common with relativism and nihilism; radical constructivism is in exact opposition to the ‘old’ objectivity, namely the perspective that von Glasersfeld claims to challenge. von Glasersfeld, indeed, does not raise doubts about truth, which, in his conception, is already well defined: truth is fully resolved in subjective construction. Based on his critique of Western thought, we can say that, from von Glasersfeld’s perspective, if the mistake of Western thought was its view of knowledge as fully resolved in a representation of a firmly established external reality, von Glasersfeld’s mistake is to see truth as fully resolved in our firmly established cognitive structure. Between objectivism and radical constructi- vism, there is no difference in aims, stance, and method; only the place and the tools for the ‘representation’ of knowledge and truth differ. von Glasersfeld, in his attempt to define ‘the only world we consciously live in’ (2002, 1), transforms the logic of knowledge and reflection into an ontology – and, in a sense, a metaphysics – of experience. The attempt to present a unique and incomparable place from which everything originates is the same ‘original sin’ of the ‘old’ metaphysics that von Glasersfeld claims to challenge. In contrast, relativism and nihilism entail an ever-present problematicity in the knowledge – knower – known relationship, and these philosophies stem from a strong moral stance – the ‘will to truth.’ Because they are strongly engaged with truth, relativism and nihilism may be educationally promising. I attempt to argue my point using the Nietzschean account of ‘truth,’ as he presents it in ‘The Gay Science.’
As several scholars have acknowledged, the questions of relativism and nihilism are not recent ones: they have been asked almost since the time of Nietzsche (Cooper 1985; Ramaekers 2001; Yacek 2014). These questions and their implications challenge ethics and education at their foundations (Smeyers et al. 2000), raising pressing issues that are at the very heart of education. I argue that the Nietzschean understanding – and, in a sense, the Nietzschean ‘discovery’ – of nihilism may provide a foothold for a strong account of responsibility in education.
In his well-known aphorism ‘In what sense we, too, are still pious,’ Nietzsche addresses the problem of the ‘unconditional will to truth’; in doing so, he raised the question of the sense of truth with upsetting force and modernity more than one century ago (Nietzsche [1882] 2001, 200-201). The question he raised was as simple as it was disturbing: why do human beings prefer truth? Or, as he writes:
why not allow oneself to be deceived? […] Is it really less harmful, dangerous, disastrous not to let oneself be deceived? What do you know in advance about the character of existence to be able to decide whether the greater advantage is on the side of the unconditionally distrustful or of the unconditionally trusting? (Nietzsche [1882] 2001, 201)
Nietzsche, in this pivotal aphorism, clearly notes how the faith in truth cannot stand on any calculus or pragmatic evaluation. Moreover, truth has originated ‘in spite of’ any practical consideration about ‘the disutility and the dangerousness of the “will to truth”’ (Nietzsche [1882] 2001, 201, emphasis in original). As Nietzsche states,
science, too, rests on a faith; there is simply not ‘presupositionless’ science. The question whether truth is necessary must get an answer in advance, the answer ‘yes,’ and moreover this answer must be so firm that it takes the form of the statement, the belief, the conviction: ‘Nothing is more necessary than truth; and, in relation to it, everything else has a secondary value.’ ([1882] 2001, 200)
Truth and science, thus, ‘stand on a moral ground’ (Nietzsche [1882] 2001, 201). In the Nietzschean account, above all, we face a decision about the value of truth. This decision does not depend on theoretical evidence or pragmatic evaluation: it is an ethical push. With this aphorism – and this is pivotal from an educational point of view – the supremacy of the ethical dimension is firmly established.
Thus, from Nietzsche onward, we recognize that not only reason but also its origin and its right to exist are in question – and most likely, that is the question regarding our thought. Regarding such an anguishing question as a paean to ‘anything goes’ is very misleading. Indeed, in Nietzsche’s works, from Human, All Too Human ([1878] 1996) to On the Genealogy of Morals ([1887] 1996), our thought loses its inevitability, comes out from the silent ground of preconceptions, and becomes a possibility we have chosen, a possibility that we, precisely because of the will to truth and ‘the faith of Plato’ (Nietzsche [1882] 2001, 202), have the moral duty to question. By posing the question of truth, Nietzsche has removed any possibility of remaining on safe ground. Nihilism, thus, is an offspring of this type of uncertain and anguishing thought, which is anything but a ‘commodity,’ as it is in von Glasersfeld’s (1988, 1) understanding. To say it roughly, our foundation is uncertainty in thinking, acting, and educating; now, we are able to see the far-reaching consequences of this paradox. Facing this paradox, namely facing nihilism/ relativism/postmodernism, is more like a never-ending educational endeavor than a choice made for once and for all.
Acknowledging the loss of the nexus of truth-knowledge-action is even more problematic in pedagogy, given that education is a responsibility-centered field and that the task of teachers and educators – and of educational researchers – is to transform reality, not merely to understand it. From Nietzsche onward, ‘[t]he traditional picture of education […] becomes unsettled’ (Ramaekers 2001, 255). Thus, the weakening of the truth and the potential equivalence of understandings in education acquires a different meaning that, in turn, should indicate a way out of a sterile relativism: (1) on the one hand, this content is an explosive issue at the very heart of intentional action: if a strong concept of truth is lost – if my truth is, in the end, as equally unfounded as any other truth – we have no rule to abide by or criteria for thinking, knowing, or acting, and thus, for educating; (2) on the other hand, taking it seriously, we are faced with a ‘practical paradox’ that, in a certain way, cuts off this relativistic position: if I act in a certain way, it is because I believe that it is the right way to act and not merely because I chose that way from an undifferentiated horizon of options. The consequence of the relativistic position, not only in the practical field, but also in thinking and in knowing, is impossible to bear because relativism, which implies the equivalence of positions, also implies the total indifference of the world. In our concrete life and education, we are already engaged in and aiming at something; in education, we are called by someone to act. In existential and educational terms, the relativistic position seems weary.
Thus, looking at this second issue, the basis of education depends strictly on this existential perspective on the belief: it is quite difficult to find a situation in which every possibility is equal to the others in our assessment. Of course, I am not advocating for a return to an objectivity that is, first and foremost, impossible to achieve; in this respect, we must lose our innocence, so to speak. In my opinion, this line of thought, this attitude of questioning the basis, the sense, and the value of knowledge and truth shows all of its inner potential related to education: the loyalty and the caution that we develop and how we pursue an educational project are the signs that, in our mind, one project is not equal to another. De facto, to pursue an educational task entails an evaluation of justice and truth; education is education about what matters to us and what we judge righteous, true, and fair. However, and here we return to Nietzsche’s question, how can we ground education in such concepts if they are precisely the concepts being questioned? A possible key is the concept of responsibility, viewed according to the existential field and linked to one of the basic features of education, namely uncertainty. Educational science, as argued above, is unique primarily because of a fundamental characteristic that differentiates it from the other sciences: its underlying intention is to transform a given initial situation. In other words, in the best-case scenario, the educational process consists of a movement away from the known toward uncertainty. The subject in education wishes to acquire something, to become something, or to be something that she/he currently is not. Education involves possibility, the not-yet (Standish 1992; Bonnett 1994, 2002; Gur-Ze’ev 2002; Biesta 2010).
This not-yet is, in a sense, the foundation of education. In other words, in education, uncertainty is not the result of a progressive process of clarification; it is simultaneously the basis and the end point of the educational process. Indeed, every educational process both begins with and moves toward the unknown. It begins with the unknown because the nature of the educational situation is never clear in advance. The first task of teachers, educators, and researchers is to shed light on the specific educational situation. Education moves toward the unknown because the primary meaning and task of the educational process is in this work-toward-possibility, and possibility is, by definition, uncertain. Educators, teachers, and educationalists should remain aware that there is no simple solution to this basic uncertainty; it demands continuous reflective work on their/our position, which is not a given. Therefore, the movement toward uncertainty is not a limitation of the educational process but its very nature. Thus, in education, exposure to the event is not the remnant of rationality but the core of our existence – and the core of education, too. In choosing to be involved in education or to become ‘educable beings,’ that is, subjects who want and need education to realize themselves, we choose to reside in a potentially open experience. This openness is not something we must discover but something that is ever-present within ourselves as our own possibility. Thus, in approaching this openness and this basic uncertainty, we are not taking a lateral approach or undergoing a ‘nihilistic drift’; instead, we respond to our existence by entering it through its primary approach, through its possibility from the beginning.
Our duty as stakeholders in education is to acknowledge our foundation, analyze it, question it, put it before the bar, and examine its effects on concrete education because the education that we promote and realize depends on this foundation. The challenge and the inner sense of nihilism are to take a twofold step toward truth and education: on the one hand, as educationalists, we rely on a strong stance regarding truth and our founding condition of projecting – no one begins to act without engaging the world and others. On the other hand, we acknowledge that the truth on which we rely is only our truth. This ever-present paradox (Smeyers 2009; Smeyers and Waghid 2010a, 2010b), if acknowledged in its problematicity and existential range, may be a suitable educational basis for a strong ethical engagement in education.
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The use of the term ‘head’ is very significant. Due to space constraints, I cannot discuss the absence of the body in von Glasersfeld’s theory and how this absence relates to his account of knowledge; however, I believe it is clear how removing the body, namely our ‘physical’ being, from any account of knowledge is strictly functional to von Glasersfeld’s argument against the existence of the physical world.
With respect to this point, there is also the need to recall how negative statements about the existence of something – i.e., ‘a world independent of the subject does not exist’ – are ontological statements.
Due to space constraints, I cannot fully discuss how von Glasersfeld’s account of communication is a repetition/reduction of Dewey’s theory. I wish only to note that von Glasersfeld’s concept of ‘consensual domain’ is no more – and, perhaps, something less – than the question of communication framed by Dewey as ‘not just ego-centrically.’ As Dewey stated, a communication between two persons occurs such that, ‘B’s understanding of A’s movement and sounds is that he responds to the thing from the standpoint of A. He perceives the thing as it may function in A’s experience, instead of just ego-centrically. Similarly, A in making the request conceives the thing not only in its direct relationship to himself, but as a thing capable of being grasped and handled by B. He sees the thing as it may function in B’s experience. Such is the essence and import of communication, signs and meaning. Something is literally made common in at least two different centres of behavior’ (1929, 178).
In this respect, von Glasersfeld seems to present his theory as an alternative to the whole philosophical tradition of the West (von Glasersfeld and Cobb 1983, 1).
Due to space constraints, I can only quote another example of von Glasersfeld’s simplification/ instrumentalization of Western thought: ‘Nearly all thinkers who have pondered problems of epistemology have explicitly or implicitly adopted the view that the activity of “knowing” begins with a cut between the cognizing subject and the object to be known. That is, they assume an existing world, an ontological reality, and once this assumption has been made, it follows necessarily that the knower will have this world as his environment and it will be his task to get to know it as best he can. Knowing, thus, becomes an act of duplicating or replicating what is supposed to be already there, outside the knower’ (von Glasersfeld and Varela 1987, 6). We all know that the issue of ‘ontological reality’ and the relationship between knower/knowing/reality has been a perennial question of Western thought since the work of Gorgia and since the ‘weight’ of skeptical thought have become the ‘mainstream’ of postmodern philosophy, having increased over the past two centuries starting from the work of Nietzsche. Thus, von Glasersfeld’s account of Western thought seems to be an instrumentalist one, as it works as the foundation upon which to validate his theory.
Joldersma’s critique of constructivism based on the Heideggerian question of truth as aletheia is substantial: the Heideggerian concept of truth as aletheia, namely world disclosure, is a question that, in Heidegger’s understanding, underlies truth as correctness or correspondence and thus underlies von Glasersfeld’s account of knowledge. At several points in his works, Heidegger argues for a different stance toward truth, a stance beyond ‘Plato’s fatal relocation of truth away from concrete things themselves as they naturally show and reveal themselves in the richness of our vernaculars toward the idea of the exchange of equivalents’ (1945 2002, 36). von Glasersfeld’s work in locating knowledge away from such original openness lies within the idea ‘of the exchange of equivalents.’
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