Toward a constructivist epistemology: Johann Gottfried Herder and Humberto Maturana
Fischer B. (1997) Toward a constructivist epistemology: Johann Gottfried Herder and Humberto Maturana. The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms 2(2): 304–308. Available at http://cepa.info/2801
Humberto Maturana describes the worlds of living systems as a function within a biological–historical development that is geared towards the survival of these particular beings. Living systems are defined as self-organizing, autopoietic units. The niche of a living system is dependent upon its particular structures, for instance, its cellular or neuron structures. They allow for a specific exchange with a niche that is, in turn, defined and created (i.e., cognitized) by the system’s interaction. The human brain has developed a level of neural activity that can be described as a kind of observer that both registers and organizes activities in the brain. These processes may be triggered from the outside or from within the living system itself. The worlds of humans are autopoietically constructed and cannot, therefore, be understood as images of any kind of an objective outside world. “Again we must walk on the razor’s edge, eschewing the extremes of representationalism (objectivism) and solipsism (idealism).”[Note 1] Cognition does not concern objects, for cognition is effective action; and as we know how we know, we bring forth ourselves.”[Note 2] Language is not only the medium of self- and world-construction, it is also the organizational principle of human beings of the third order, of social couplings, of human societies. “This new dimension of operational coherance of our languaging together is what we experience as consciousness and ’our’ mind and self.”[Note 3]
The point has been made that Humberto Maturana’s “radical constructivism” is in many respects neo-Kantian. There are also definite parallels between aspects of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Maturana’s biological epistemology. On the other hand, it should not be overlooked that idealist authors like Kant and Fichte were still entangled in several metaphysical paradigms, which can no longer be supported by constructivist theories. For political and ethical reasons, this seems especially important, when it comes to idealist philosophies of history. Kant, for instance, continued the tradition of a teleology of history, even though he did it by way of his famous “as-if” relativization. He felt that his critical philosophy had to act as if there were a telos and potentially describable purpose to history, although it could never be proved. Eschatology was, therefore, considered to be more than just a necessity of human reason. (On that level – as a principle of reason, logics, and the construction of meaning – teleology is, of course, important for constructivism as well.) One had to act as though it were a law of nature as well, or else there would ultimately be no reason.
Fichte moved a decisive step back towards the dogmatics of eschatological metaphysics – as did his nationalist and socialist followers – when he simply stated in his Grundzfige des gegenwiirtigen Zeitalters that he had found a way of scientifically describing God’s plan for human history by way of his pentagonal model of history – the old three-step model with a few extras. Fichte no longer acknowledged that this model was simply an attempt to construct meaning in a principally uncharted field of the mechanics and directions of history. He claimed instead to have found the scientific law of historical development. For Fichte, truth and the essence of reality lie in the invisible realm of ideas and not in the coincidental and deceptive appearance of the empirical world. Therefore, he is not particularly worried that his historical model – beginning with the natural society and Christian dogmatism to the alienated epoch of Enlightenment to the philosophical idea and finally the republic of pure reason – could not be proved by way of empirical research and scientific discourse.
There is, however, one author of German Enlightenment in particular who breaks with the idealist philosophy of history and develops a much different understanding of the relationship between the empirical world and the realm of ideas, namely Herder. Probably the most widely read and knowledgeable thinker of the German Enlightenment, he based his description of the history of humankind on empirical data from all over the world and from a wide range of sources and theories. Like Kant, he also concludes that human beings have no choice but to hope that there is a divine purpose to history, which they, however, are not equipped to detect or describe. All attempts to make sense out of the data that the history of humankind has provided are always bound to a very specific point in time, to a particular culture and civilization, and to their particular logics and presuppositions.
In Herder’s view, one should not be surprised that different ages with their particular cultures and philosophical paradigms came up with different meanings for the history of humankind, since all of them are relative, temporal, prejudiced by their particular historical circumstances – in other words, simply human and not divine. Herder developed a critique of totalizing philosophies that anticipated many concepts that are currently en vogue, for instance, a critique of Eurocentrism and of history. Accordingly, Herder’s ethics – his central concept of “Humanitat” – state that the quality of philosophical models must be measured by their abilities to allow for societies that are most favorable for the human condition.
It must be granted that Herder’s idea of Humanita is still a metaphysical construct. But it is a construct whose basis, purpose, and telos is the essence of humanity itself and not some idea that is bound to a single philosophical system – as is, for instance, the case in Fichte’s radical systematization. To some degree, Herder sacrifices the power of the system in favor of a relativization that always reintroduces the intuitive understanding of humanity as the ultimate measure of all systematic philosophical logics. To be sure, the mind itself cannot help but to cognitize and argue along the lines of a particular system of logics, but Herder knows that it would be a dangerous illusion to assume that these logics and systematics could ever be more than one particular temporal paradigm of fallible human thought or that any philosophy could ever come up with any eternal, trans- historical, or superhuman constructs of meaning. Without making it fully explicit, Herder’s understanding of philosophy, of the mind’s ability to understand and make sense out of sensual data, is to a degree constructivist. The mind constructs models of meaning out of its particular human presuppositions, logics, and prejudices provided by a particular tradition within a particular culture. This is, of course, mediated by language. There is even an idea of autopoiesis within Herder’s fundamentals of cognitive theory.
In the following, I attempt to describe Herder’s cognitive theory in his own words as they can be found in his Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Humanity,[Note 4] a work that is explicitly based on a cognitive theory and remains unusually skeptical towards the assumptions of teleological philosophies of history. Herder’s road towards a relativization of human cognition departs from cosmological reflections. On a cosmic scale, our earth seems nothing more than a mere particle of dust (p. 22). At the same time, however, there seems to be a unified force at work in the universe that sustains all the suns of our Milky Way, all its planets, and the fate of all matter and all individual lives on earth (pp. 22f.). Its cipher is God (p. 24). Human life, as we know it, is only possible on our planet, for there seems to be a functional relationship between our particular senses and Earth’s particular physical makeup. “My eye is made for rays of the sun which have traveled a certain distance, my ear for Earth’s particular atmosphere, my body for Earth’s particular matter; all my senses were developed out of and for the particular organization of this planet; and so are the powers of my soul” (p. 23). For Herder, soul takes on the meaning of the human capacity to construct meaning out of sensory data. It is the realm of the construction of the human world, a “niche?’ As such, it too is like all things on Earth a product of evolution (p. 930).
There is no way for humans to cognitize nature as it is. Rather we live in a purely human world that is constructed according to the particular organizational laws of human reasoning. “Let us not think that the light we see could be the pure light of the sun, let us not believe that our mind and our will are equipped to handle the universe” (p. 29). Being a product of evolution, humankind and its niche are a “microcosm” (p. 31).
As is all animal life, human cognitive apparatus is based upon “natural drives” (p. 142). In the case of humankind they are, however, suppressed by a “system of nerves and fine senses” that “organizes” the human world. Reason is not there upon birth – only the fundamental principles of the neural system seem to come with birth – reason is the product of learning, socialization, and conscious decisions. Reason is free; it can be deceived and it can be deceitful. Human drives as well as the whole human organism are directed toward survival of the self and of the species (p. 154). Therefore, human beings are social beings, and of particular importance are the sympathetic abilities of their neural systems (“Nervengebaude,” p. 156), which can by no means only be considered a rational machine, but includes emotionality. Herder stresses the ear as the organ of sociability, as it is the cry of pain and agony that compels the highest levels of compassion in us (p. 157) and it is the human voice that draws us into a social way of existence. Finally, language is the medium of social life and society (p. 157). Logics, “the rules of truth and justice” (p. 159), are the laws of lingual as well as cognitive organization.
Our senses are highly selective according to principles of symmetry, for we need “unity in our cognitive organization, in our thoughts and reflections” (p. 159). Otherwise our actions would result in crookedness without any rule or sense. These ideas of symmetry are dependent on the principles and the sensual makeup of our neural organization.
The headline of paragraph 4 of chapter 5 reads: “The realm of human organization is a system of intellectual powers” (p. 180). In this chapter, Herder offers some speculations on the nature of autopoiesis: “The image that is painted in the eye does not get into our brain; the sound that is reflected in our ear does not reach our soul mechanically” (p. 180). There are human-specific “psychological laws” that govern the soul’s operations and its construction of ideas (p. 181).
It is certain that the thought, even the first sensual activity, which allows the soul to imagine an outer object, is a completely different thing than what is being received by the senses. We call it an image; however, it is no image, not the speck of light that is painted onto the eye and that never reaches the brain; the image of the soul is purely mental, a phenomenon that is constructed by the soul itself upon the instigation of the senses. It is the soul itself that produces out of the chaos of matter that surrounds it a figure; and it devotes its whole attention to this figure. Accordingly, by way of its inner powers, the soul constructs a unity out of multiplicity and diversity, a unity that is its own. It is so much its own that it can be reproduced, even if it is no longer there for the senses. In a dream and in poesy it can be reconstructed and rearranged along the lines of different laws than those that were at work when it was constructed with the help of the senses. (p. 181).
Herder (like Maturana) cites an example of the mentally ill to illustrate his point. With the mentally ill one can easily observe the soul’s immaterial nature. For the mentally ill often depart from an idea that overpowers their whole intellectual organization, a fixed idea that destroys the functioning of their mental apparatus and its connection with the senses (p. 181). This rule of the idea, which can be observed here as the idiosyncrasy of an illness, is, nevertheless, fundamental for all human cognition. “The idea determines all associations of our thoughts. They are all part of a being, which recalls out of its own potential and often in strangely idiosyncratic ways memories and connects them according to its inner rule of like and dislike and not according to any outer mechanism” (p. 182). Herder speaks of an “organic but self-referential being that acts according to its own laws of mental connections” (p. 182).
From childhood on, our ideas are artificially constructed (p. 182). Children learn how to see. If it comes to colors, size, distance, and similar ideas, it is not the senses that learn. Rather the “soul” learns how to measure, compare, even to feel through the senses. Language, in particular, is for Herder an intellectual, not a physical, means of constructing ideas (p. 182). Only a senseless person, he says, would take sound and word for one and the same (p. 182). Herder speaks of an “inner, intellectual human who is of his own nature and uses the body only as a tool” (p. 183). This person lives in his or her “own world of ideas” and is characterized by “powers of constructing and connecting ideas” (p. 183). Herder shifted the burden of meaning from the master discourse of the idealist philosophy of history towards a critical theory of cognition. It is this shift in philosophical paradigm – which has still today not been completed – that allowed him a surprisingly advanced understanding of the brain’s autopietic capacities of constructing human worlds. Herder’s human is self-productive and self-referential. Language is the organizational tool of meaning for the individual’s world as well as for the collective worlds of social couplings or cultures, which are being constructed as a process of human interaction with themselves, with each other, and with those aspects of the chaotic matter outside which humans are biologically equipped to interact with and which, therefore, are cognitized as a human world.
Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Boston: New Science Library, 1987), 241.
Maturana and Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, 244.
Maturana and Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, 232.
Johann Gottfried Herder. Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, in Johann Gottfried Herder: Werke, Vol. 6, ed. Martin Bollacher (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1989). Page numbers refer to this edition; translations are mine.
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