CEPA eprint 3022

An alternative to von Glasersfeld’s subjectivism in science education: Deweyan social constructivism

Garrison J. (1997) An alternative to von Glasersfeld’s subjectivism in science education: Deweyan social constructivism. Science & Education 6: 301–312. Available at http://cepa.info/3022
Table of Contents
Shaving off subjectivist constructivism
An alternative to subjectivism: Dewey’s social behaviorism
The practical art of experimental construction and objectivity in science education
An influential view of constructivism in science and mathematics educational research and practice is that of Ernst von Glasersfeld. It is a peculiarly subjectivist form of constructivism that should not be attractive to science and mathematics educators concerned with retaining some sort of realism that leaves room for objectivity. The subjectivist constructivism of von Glasersfeld also becomes entangled in untenable mind/body and subject/object dualisms. Finally, these dualisms are unnecessary for social constructivism. I will provide one example of a social constructivist alternative to social constructivism, that of the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey. In presenting Dewey’s position I will appeal to Ockham’s razor, that is, the admonition not to multiply entities beyond necessity, to shave off the needless mentalistic and psychic entities that lead von Glasersfeld into his subjectivism and dualism.
In outward forms, experimental science is infinitely varied. In principle, it is simple. We know an object when we know how it is made, and we know how it is made in the degree in which we ourselves make it. John Dewey (1925, 1981, p. 319).
Two concerns compel me to write this paper. First, I am very uncomfortable with what I will call “subjectivist constructivism.” I believe that subjectivist constructivism is a hodgepodge of incompatible positions that issue in a host of untenable mind/body, subject/object dualisms. Second, I believe that a consistent social constructivism shaves off these needless dualisms, retains all the virtues of subjectivist constructivism, and does not get caught up in its confusions. I will develop my version of social constructivism in the pragmatic tradition of John Dewey. What we require is a steady application of Ockham’s razor, that is, we should follow this medieval thinker’s admonition that “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” Constructivism does not need the horde of psychic and mentalistic entities postulated by subjectivist constructivism. Such entities are simply unnecessary for the Deweyan social constructivist. The most renowned champion of subjectivist constructivism in science education is Ernst von Glasersfeld. I will focus my attention on his work. Narrowing my focus to those works likely to be most familiar to science educators, I will concentrate on von Glasersfeld’s (1989) “Cognition, Construction of Knowledge, and Teaching” and his “Constructivism Reconstructed: A Reply to Suchting” (von Glasersfeld, 1992).
Shaving off subjectivist constructivism
In his response to W. A. Suchting, von Glasersfeld (1992) concedes the correctness of at least one aspect of Suchting’s critique:
Nevertheless, I, too consider constructivism an offspring of subjective empiricism. It makes no secret of having adopted Locke’s much neglected insight that the source of complex ideas is the mind’s reflection upon its own operations, Berkeley’s principle that it is “impossible for us to conceive a likeness except only between our ideas,” and it not only accepts Hume’s thesis that the causal relation requires an experiencer, but extends this requirement to all relational notions. But since constructivism is explicitly instrumentalist, it holds that all this conceptual construction is carried out not for the sake of representational knowledge of a “given” world, but to enlarge the map of viable pathways in the world constituted by the subject’s experience (p. 353).
This is not a surprising concession to the reader of von Glasersfeld’s 1989 paper. There he repeatedly uses language that eulogizes such phrases as “subjective constructs,” “subjective realities,” and “the subjective perspective on social interaction.” Pragmatic social constructivism is also explicitly instrumentalist, but it carries out its constructions in the full light of day, and without recourse to mentalistic operations or psychic entities like Lockean “ideas.” Its operations occur in the everyday common sense world of tools and labor.
We may lather up for our subjectivist shave by reflecting on von Glasersfeld’s claim that “constructivism is a form of pragmatism” (1989, p. 121). This claim rests on von Glasersfeld’s assertion that his position is consistent with the work of the prominent neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty. The passage in Rorty that most impresses von Glasersfeld reads, “He [the pragmatist] drops the notion of truth as correspondence with reality altogether, and says that modern science does not enable us to cope because it corresponds, it just enables us to cope” (cited in von Glasersfeld, 1989, p. 124). One certainly does not have to he a pragmatist to agree with Rorty’s statement, but it is an important point. It is also about the only thing that subjectivist empiricism and pragmatism share except the associated idea of adaptive instrumentalism It is true that pragmatists generally reject representative realism or any epistemology that describes truth as correspondence to reality, what Rorty calls “mind as the mirror of nature.” Pragmatists do favor what von Glasersfeld calls “adaptive function.” Clearly von Glasersfeld commits himself to a psychological “theory of knowledge construction” seen especially in his interpretation of Piaget’s “constructivist theory of knowing.” Rorty, though, completely rejects traditional epistemology, i.e., “theory of knowledge,” whether it be the rationalist tradition of Descartes, Kant, Piaget and Chomsky or the empiricist tradition of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. In his most famous work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Rorty devotes an entire chapter to rejecting, as the chapter title indicates, “Epistemology and Empirical Psychology” as well as a section of another chapter specifically refuting “Locke’s confusion of [causal] explanation with justification.” It is a confusion found in von Glasersfeld’s subjectivist constructivism.
Rorty (1979) sees epistemology “as a notion based upon a confusion between the justification of knowledge-claims and their causal explanation – between, roughly, social practices and postulated psychological practices” (p. 10). Rorty eliminates traditional epistemology in favor of social practices of justification while leaving psychology Lu deal with at least some of the explanation of the processes that cause knowledge claims to be made and acted upon (e.g., habits, emotional states, etc.). It is this distinction dial leads Rorty (1979) to declare that “if assertions al e justified by society rather than by the character of the inner representations they express, then there is no point in attempting to isolate privileged representalions [of reality] (p. 174). Rorty’s reasons for ‘ejecting representational realism and correspondence theories of truth also cause him to reject von Glasersfeld’s “subjective empiricism” even if both feel the same about “privileged representations.”
For Rorty the authority for warranting a claim to be “true” resides with the socio-linguistic practices of the community of those competent to judge. He characterizes his position as “epistemological behaviorism” and identifies it quite rightly with Dewey’s conception of truth as “warranted assertibility.” Rorty (1979) writes, “Explaining rationality and epistemic authority by reference to what society lets us say, rather than the latter by the former, is the essence of what I shall call ‘epistemological behaviorism, ’ an attitude common to Dewey and Wittgenstein” (1979, p. 174). Roily (1979) carefully distinguishes epistemological behaviorism from the psychological behaviorism of J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner (see Chapters IV and V). Roughly the difference is that epistemological behaviorism emphasizes shared social practices rather than individual behavior, and eliminates the positivistic assumptions common to traditional behaviorism.
From a personal communication with Rorty, the famous cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner (1985) concluded that in Rorty’s opinion “psychology has thus far not accomplished much, and believes that eventually only neurological and humanistic [social, cultural, historical and political] approaches to mental phenomena will be left” (p. 86). Surprisingly this controversial observation accords well with Dewey’s (1916a, 1980) remarks in the concluding paragraph of his essay “The Need for Social Psychology” where he wrote, “From the point of view of the psychology of behavior all psychology is either biological or social psychology” (p. 63). This conclusion merely echoes Dewey’s own comment that “all psychological phenomena can be divided into the physiological and social, and that when we have relegated elementary sensation and appetite to the former head [causation], all that is left of our mental life, our beliefs, ideas and desires, falls within the scope of social psychology” (Dewey, 1916a, 1980, p. 54). There are important differences between Dewey and Rorty. For instance, Dewey is a realist while Rorty is a linguistic idealist, but both reject subjective empiricism and Kantianism, and eliminate subjectivist psychic constructions like “mental operations,” in favor of either ncurophysiological constructions or social constructions. In this way they avoid the untenable mind/body, subject/object dualisms that so confound those like von Glasersfeld who are committed to traditional epistemology. Ask yourself, If the mind and body really are two entirely different sub‑stances, (or levels), then how do they interact? As we are about to see, von Glasersfeld gets himself hung up on a more sophisticated version of this dualism, and his solution is entirely imaginary.
The contrast between what Rorty calls “epistemological behaviorism” and von Glasersfeld’s commitment to mentalistic cognitive schemes is irreconcilable. It is an all too typical example of von Glasersfeld’s taking an idea out of context and turning it into something its original author would entirely reject. It is this kind of thing that makes subjectivist constructivism an almost unrefutable hodgepodge. According to von Glasersfeld (1989), “there is no place in the behaviorist approach for what we would like to call understanding” (p. 131). Clearly, von Glasersfeld should reject Rorty, not affirm him. In any case there may be problems in accounting for understanding using the reductive and positivistic behaviorisms of Watson and Skinner, but they certainly do not apply to Rorty and Dewey. Indeed, as we are about to see, it is von Glasersfeld who has difficulties himself explaining how two people understand each other. I will use that difficulty to begin a somewhat detailed discussion of the difference between subjectivist versus social constructivism.
Piagct, as von Glasersfeld interprets him, held a two-fold “theory of [psychic] schemes” that yielded a two-fold theory of learning (p. 128). As von Glasersfeld (1989) describes it:
On the sensory-motor level, action schemes are instrumental in helping organisms to achieve goals in their interaction with their experiential world. On the level of reflective abstraction, however, operative schemes are instrumental in helping organisms achieve a coherent conceptual network that reflects the paths of acting as well as thinking which, at the organisms’ present point of experience, have turned out to he viable …. The first instrumentality might be called “utilitarian” (the kind philosophers have traditionally scorned). The second, however, is strictly “epistemic.” As such, it may be of some philosophical interest – above all because it entails a radical shift in the conception of “knowledge” …. In Piaget’s view, the certainty of conclusions in these areas pertains to mental operations and not to sensory-motor material …. (pp. 128-129).
The untenable dualism is between levels one and two. How do they interact? Where in the world, literally, does the second “mental” level exist? If you say, “Well, in the mind of course,” then I will simply say, And where is that?” The pragmatist would answer: Why, in the shared social practices of the community and the neurophysiological structures and habits of the individual participants, of course. One way of completing what Dewey (1929, 1934) considered the mistaken “quest for certainty” is to place the destination of the quest in some transcendental realm beyond time, circumstance and chance. Platonic heaven, the Cartesian cogito and a level of purely “mental operations” are three such places.
Dewey or Rorty would agree with what von Glasersfeld has to say about the sensory-motor level, as far as it goes. They could have also written, “sensory receptors (i.e., visual, auditory, tactual, etc.) send physically indistinguishable ‘responses’ to the cortex and that, therefore, the ‘sensory modalities’ can be distinguished only by keeping track of the part of the body from which the responses come, and not on the basis of ‘environmental features – (von Glasersfeld, 1989, pp. 124-5). Rorty and Dewey would have seen such “inscrutability of reference” as part of tracking the causal explanation of why people make certain knowledge-claims and would have readily acknowledged behavioral and neurophysiological underdeterminalion.’ They would not, however, care for the emphasis on central processing. Dewey, unlike Rorty, is a realist who would want to track the circular interactions between that part of nature we call “human nature” and the rest of nature that we call the environment. For Dewey the two are continuous.[Note 2] The skin is no ultimate separation. Things external to our existence, like food or sex, are nonetheless internal to our adaptive functioning as individuals and as a species.
When von Glasersfeld calls the first level of sensory-motor functioning “utilitarian” in a way that traditional philosophers scorned it, it is, for Rorty and Dewey, just a way of pointing to what was wrong with traditional philosophy. For them, and I also mean this literally, traditional philosophy scorned the work of the body. As Dewey (1929, 1984) declared, “The depreciation of action, of doing and making, has been cultivated by philosophers … [T]he social dishonor in which this [working] class was held was extended to the work they do. There is also the age- long association of knowing and thinking with immaterial and spiritual principles [mental operations], and of the arts, of all practical activity in doing and making, with matter” (p. 4). For Dewey the mind/body dualism was, in part, due to a social class dualism that arose from the privilege of those who did not have to work and so had time for speculation. Dewey (1929, 1984) saw that “we are so accustomed to the separation of knowledge from doing and making [i.e., social practices] that we fail to recognize how it controls our conceptions of mind and of reflective inquiry” (p. 18). As Dewey (1925, 1981) indicated, on the traditional separation “the scientific worker … is subordinate in rank and worth to the dilettante who enjoys the results of his labors” (p. 268, emphasis in original). Constructivism so conceived suggests that science education students should learn to operate experimental instruments as well as abstract symbol systems, and be able to connect both kinds of real world operations to each other. Social constructivism is, in this sense at least, simple, “objective” and straightforward. Students would know more if they would work, really work, Larder. That is why Dewey (1916b) wrote in Democracy and Education that “education through occupations consequently combines within itself more of the factors conducive to learning than any other method” (p. 319). The emphasis that Dewey added here is crucial. Students ought to be educated in the occupational practices of the culture, e.g., the practices of scientific experimentation and theorizing, and not simply some job or trade.
What would seem utterly fantastic to Dewey and Rorty is von Glasersfeld’s second “strictly ‘epistemic’ “ level of “mental operations.” How do we get there, or as we are about to see, once we get there how do we get back? For Dewey and Rorty “mental operations” are just something we should shave off. They arc dilettantes, lost in thought, and unable to get back to the world of work.
Having constructed subjective realities on the second level von Glasersfeld must then confront one of the truly classic problems of traditional epistemology, that is, “the problem of other minds.” It is a version of the mind/body dualism. As von Glasersfeld (1989) notes early on, “introducing the notion of social interaction raises a problem for [subjectivist] constructivists. If what a cognizing subject knows cannot be anything but what that subject has constructed, it is clear that, from the constructivist perspective, the others with whom the subject may interact socially cannot be posited as an ontological given” (p. 126). Conceived in an intimate social union, carried for nine months in another human body, and dependent for years on the care of other human beings, the subjectively constructed child must now attempt to construct other humans. Fantastic! Frightening!!
The solution von Glasersfeld calls on is a classic version borrowed from Kant whom he cites: “It is manifest that, if one wants to imagine a thinking being, one would have to put oneself in his place and to impute one’s own subject to the object one intended to consider …” (von Glasersfeld, 1989, p. 130, citing Kant). If one has put oneself in such a subjectivist position, then the only way out is imaginary. Exactly why this imaginary solution is not positing “an ontological given” is not at all clear. Kant’s transcendental idealism, and that is his classification in the philosophical lexicon, leads to a subject/object dualism. Having denied knowledge of metaphysical “things in themselves” Kant tries desperately to at least save one “thing in itself,” i.e., the moral Other. I find von Glasersfeld’s impossible combination of empiricist, Kantian, and pragmatic subjectivism confusing and unnecessary. So let us look at another way of carrying out constructions intersubjectively.
“Once we come to see this essential and inescapable subjectivity of linguistic meaning,” writes von Glasersfeld, “we can no longer maintain the preconceived notion that words convey ideas or knowledge …” (p. 133) True, but the escape is easy; we just do not allow ourselves to get lost in subjectivist constructions to begin with. The solution to the problem of other minds and the social construction of meaning are, for Dewey, identical. Tt is also behavioral, that is, a social construction.
An alternative to subjectivism: Dewey’s social behaviorism
The leading neo-pragmatic philosopher W. V. O. Quine (1969) remarks:
When a naturalistic philosopher addresses himself to the philosophy of mind, he is apt to talk of language. Meanings are, first and foremost, meanings of language. Language is a social art which we all acquire on the evidence solely of other people’s overt behavior under publicly recognizable circumstances. Meanings, therefore, those very models of mental entities, end up as grist for the behaviorists’ mill. Dewey was explicit on the point. “Meaning is not a psychic existence; it is primarily a property of behavior” (pp. 26-27, emphasis added).
Quine is correct to call Dewey a behaviorist about meaning, as we will see below when we expand and discuss the passage from Dewey cited above.
Quine (1969) concludes that if we see language in behavioral terms, then,
[t]here cannot be, in any useful sense, a private language. This point was stressed by Dewey in the twenties ….” Language is specifically a mode of interaction of at least two beings, a speaker and a hearer; it presupposes an organized group to which these creatures belong, and from whom they have acquired their habits of speech. It is therefore a relationship” “ When Dewey was writing in this naturalistic vein, Wittgenstein still held his copy [correspondence] theory of language” (p. 27; see also Dewey 1925, 1981, p. 145).
Quine is again correct. Thecore of Dewey’s behavioral theory of meaning, and most think his entire naturalistic philosophy, is his argument for the natural construction of language in social behavior. (Suchting, 1992, makes convincing use of Wittgenstein’s “private language argument” against subjective empiricism; see especially p. 240.)
In his preface to Experience and Nature Dewey (1925, 1981) declared:
That character of everyday experience which has been most systematically ignored by philosophy is the extent to which it is saturated with the results of social intercourse and communication. Because this factor has been denied, meanings have either been denied all objective validity, or have been treated as miraculous extra-natural intrusions. If, however, language, for example, is recognized as the instrument of social cooperation and mutual participation, continuity is established between natural events (animal sound, cries, etc.) and the origin and development of meanings. Mind is seen to he a function of soda! interactions, and to be a genuine character of natural events when these attain the stage of widest and most complex interaction with one another (pp. 6-7, emphasis added).
For Dewey all meanings originated in social relationships, in cooperative behavior carried out for a common purpose. As Dewey (1925, 1981) indicated, “[T]he social participation affected by communication, through language and other tools, is the naturalistic link which does away with the often alleged necessity of dividing the objects of experience into two worlds, one physical and one ideal” (p. 7). Subjectivist empiricism seems to deny both “objective validity” and to appeal to “miraculous extra-natural intrusions.” If von Glasersfeld’s “mental operations” are not “miraculous extra-natural intrusions,” then they are at least very different from natural objects like tables, neurons or even electrons. Unlike any of these objects von Glasersfeld’s mental entities and operations arc at least once removed from any social, historical, or political context. Certainly scientific objects and operations have intersubjective verifiability built into them in advance.
Dewey felt that to have a mind was to be able to participate in the social constructions of a society, that is, to be able to do the work, use the tools and speak the language of a member of a social community. For Dewey (1925, 1981), “Mind denotes the whole system of meanings as they are embodied in the workings of organic life. (p. 230). For Dewey (1925, 1981) all meanings were linguistic in origin, so he concluded, “Through speech a person dramatically identifies himself with potential acts and deeds; he plays many roles, not in successive stages of life but in a contemporaneously enacted drama. Thus mind emerges” (p. 135). Said differently, Dewey held a behaviorist theory of mind. Said differently still, for Dewey a mind was a social construction. All meanings, and hence all minds, originate in linguistic practices.
The following passage is a straightforward statement of Dewey’s position on the natural origin of language in organic and social behavior:
Gestures and cries are not primarily expressive and communicative. They are [naturalistic] modes of organic behavior as much as are locomotion, seizing and crunching. Language, signs and significance, come into existence not by intent and mind but by overflow, byproducts, in gestures and sound. The story of language is the story of the use made of these occurrences; a use that is eventual, as well as eventful …. But they became language only when used within a context of mutual assistance and direction. The latter are alone of prime importance in considering the transformation of organic gestures and cries into names, things with significance, or the origin of language (Dewey. 1925, 1981, pp. 138-139).
It is social behavior, mutual assistance and direction, that transforms organic behavior, gestures and cries, into the originating event of language and leads eventually to the emergence of the mind.
Meanings originate for Dewey by coordinating naturally occurring behavior between two or more persons and some common object. Dewey (1925, 1981) wrote:
A requests B to bring him something, to which A points, gay a flower. There is an original mechanism by which B may react to A’s movement in pointing. But natively such a reaction is to the movement, not to the pointing, not to the object pointed out. But B learns that the movement is a pointing; he responds to it not in itself, but as an index of something else. His response is transferred from A’s direct movement to the object to which A points. Thus he does not merely execute the natural acts of looking or grasping …. he responds in a way which is a function of A’s relationship, actual and potential, to the thing. The characteristic thing about B’s understanding of A’s movement and sounds is that lie responds to the thing from the standpoint of A Such is the essence and import of communication, signs and meanings. Something is literally made common in at least two different centres of behavior (pp. 140-141).
Compare this example to that of “the parent’s pointing” in von Glasersfeld (1989, p. 132-133). Oddly enough, Dewey’s example and von Glasersfeld’s examples are very similar, yet von Glasersfeld concludes that the situation leads to an “inescapable subjectivity of linguistic meaning” when all it proves is what the pragmatist would call “the inscrutability of reference.” Of course, as von Glasersfeld asserts, arriving at intersubjective agreement regarding a common referent “out there” in the world is radically underdetermined. That is why teaching is hard. All behavior is subject to multiple interpretations. Just think of how many ways we can interpret a teacher’s touching a student on the shoulder. Is it an accident, reassurance, a teaching act, a sexual advance or something else altogether? Adding a layer of mentalistic structures does not make things any easier.
Why is it not enough to have a social and neurophysiological basis for the
underdeterminacy? Is that not, by Ockham’s razor, enough? What work does yet another mentalistic level of ambiguity perform?
For Dewey, all meaningful objects emerge out of natural events by mutual assistance and understanding within a shared context that establishes intersubjective, and in that sense “objective,” reference by co- designating some object, essence or process. Dewey (1925, 1981) leaves no room for doubt about his position when he declares, “Meanings do not come into being without language, and language implies two selves involved in a conjoint or shared understanding” (p. 226). There are noexclusively private languages. Even hermits take their socio-cultural heritage with them.
The following passage clearly describes Dewey’s social constructivism. It is the complete text alluded to earlier by Quine as stating well, as it does, Dewey’s behavioral theory of meaning. The passage reads:
The heart of language is not “expression” of something antecedent, much less expression of antecedent thought. It is communication; 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. To fail to understand is to fail to come into agreement in action; to misunderstand is to set up action at cross purposes Meaning is not indeed a psychic existence; it is primarily a property of behavior, and secondarily a property of objects. But the behavior of which it is a quality is a distinctive behavior; cooperative, in that response to another’s act involves contemporaneous response to a thing as entering into the other’s behavior, and this upon both sides (Dewey, 1925, 1981, p. 141).
Meaning for Dewey was a social construction; it was primarily a property of social behavior and only secondarily of objects that are dependent on the primary co-ordinated behaviors for their meaning and significance. All this does not mean that individuals cannot have unique individual minds. Each of us has a unique neurophysiological endowment witnessed, for example, by the uniqueness of our fingerprints; that alone assures the possibility of unique individuality. We do not need any special innate or constructed mentalistic realm to account for having a mind, even a unique one. Participating in more than one socio-cultural practice or heritage also aids in the development of a unique mind, That is why multicultural study is so valuable. There are many ways to acquire an original mind.
For Dewey, subjectivist empiricism or Kantianism was a clumsy way to secure knowledge. It was not, according to Dewey, until the emergence of scientific methods of experimental inquiry in the seventeenth century that knowledge was put on the secure pathway to progress. I believe that the same thing can be said for science education, although that happy event is yet to happen. Subjectivism will not hasten the arrival. I want to argue that not only should science educators be social constructivists, but that social constructivism for them should emphasize experimentalism.
For Dewey, experiences, whether of the neurons “popping in your head” while “on” powerful hallucinogens, the stick bent in water, or the construction of the proof of the Pythagorean theorem on a blackboard arc all real. What else could they be? Difficulties only arise from misunderstanding the meaning of immediate experience. It is the office of inquiry to obtain reliable knowledge of immediate experience. By experimenting on the external environment, varying conditions in the situation, e.g., moving sticks entirely out of the water (or entirely into it) to see if sticks are straight in a single medium, or placing sticks between other different media, the inquirer may learn to connect different otherwise disconnected qualitative experiences into a unified whole. Experimental operations are expressible symbolically: that is, as constructions that are manipulated with hands and pencil and paper or computer instead of hands alone. Perhaps we may even derive an easily manipulated mathematical equation from which further connections can be derived by symbolic operations alone: for example., the construction of a symbolic relationship like Snell’s law. Do not underestimate the power of this simple story. For Dewey such behavioral operations occur in the world and involve using one’s hands and tools like rulers or computers. It is the job of inquiry to solve problems.
As Dewey (1929, 1984) put it:
From this point of view, the objects of our common sense [experiential] world (by which is signified that in which we live, with our loves and hates, our defeats and achievements, our choices, strivings and enjoyments) have a double status. When they precede operations of competent directed inquiry, they are not matters of knowledge; they are experienced just as they happen to occur. They thus set problems for inquiry, problems of varied scope …. But in the degree in which … affairs. are transformed by becoming consequences of operations made possible by limited forms of knowing, they also arc objects of knowledge. While they are not more real, they are richer and more significant objects … (p. 159).[Note 3]
For Dewey it was the operations of experimental inquiry and symbolic manipulation that determined the object of knowledge, and these objects are often very different from those of qualitative common sense experience.[Note 4] Dewey (1929, 1984) called the mistake of thinking that all experience put us in a knowledge relation “the great intellectualistic fallacy,” and concluded that “it is the source of alldisparagement of everyday qualitative experience, practical, esthetic, moral. It is the ultimate source of the doctrine that calls subjective and phenomenal all objects of experience that cannot he reduced to properties of objects of knowledge” (p. 175). I believe that von Glasersfeld follows Kant and Piaget in committing some version of the intellectualistic fallacy, and that we can see it in the need of both of them to construct the moral other imaginatively. If our moral relations must be constructed imaginatively, we can only wonder how we should construct our scientific experiments from which everyday knowledge relations arc produced.
The practical art of experimental construction and objectivity in science education
By inventing arts, including the art of science, Dewey (1929, 1984) indicated that “man constructs a fortress out of the very conditions and forces which threaten him” (p. 3). To Dewey’s mind science erased the invidious “theory versus practice distinction,” a distinction that he thought merely reflected an artificial social class distinction. Theorizing is just the practice of carrying out symbolic operations, and its value verified by its ability to facilitate practical operations. Remarking on the various forms of both rationalistic and empiricist philosophies, Dewey (1929, 1984) concluded:
They all hold that the operation of inquiry excludes any element of practical activity that enters into the construction of the object known …. For according to them “mind” constructs the known object not in any observable way, or by means of practical overt acts having a temporal quality, but by some occult internal operation (pp. 18-19).
The difference between subjectivist constructivism and social constructivism comes down to the difference between practical overt operations of inquiry (for example, experimental science), and the occult internal operations of “mind” characterized by von Glasersfeld’s “mental operations”’ at the level of “reflective abstraction.” For the pragmatist a clean shave with Ockham’s razor whisks away von Glasersfeld’s needless subjectivism and mentalistic abstractions, thereby clearing the face of reasonable science education for genuine experimentalist and objective social constructivism.
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The phrase “inscrutability of reference” was made famous by the neo-pragmatist W. V. Quine (1969) in his essay “Ontological Relativity.” Quine was very clear about the Deweyan influences. He wrote, “I have urged in defense of the behavioral philosophy of language, Dewey’s, that the inscrutability of reference … can be brought even closer to home …. We can apply it to ourselves” (p. 47).
Dewey (1929, 1984) wrote, “Indirectly, purpose is a legitimate and necessary idea in describing Nature itself in the large. For man is continuous with nature. As far as natural events culminate in the intelligent arts of mankind, nature itself has a history, a movement toward consequences” (p. 196). The art of science for Dewey yielded an artifact or product that we can knowledge. His was an entirely constructivist view or science and science learning, and all constructions, theories or school buildings, were natural existences.
Dewey made this same point regarding the double experiential and experimental status of common sense objects in terms of our experience of water. Dewey (1929, 1984) wrote: “As long, for example, as water is taken to be just the thing which we directly experience it to be, we can put it to a few direct uses, such as drinking, washing, etc. …. But the object of direct or perceptible experience remains the same qualitative object, enjoyable and usable, it always was. Water as an object of science, as H2O with all the other scientific propositions which can be made about it, is not a rival for position in real being with the water we see and use. It is, because of experimental operations, an added instrumentality of multiplied controls and uses of the real things of everyday experience” (p. 85). The same “double status” reasoning dismisses Arthur Eddington’s concerns about which table is real, the one that holds up kitchen utensils or the one that is mostly atomic particles moving with great velocity.
Dewey (1929, 1984, pp. 75-78) explicitly discussed the monumental achievement of Galileo in rejecting qualitative experience in favor of practically constructed experiments. So too does Suchting (1992, pp. 244-246). To Dewey’s lights if the social sciences would only learn the social constructivist lesson taught to us so long ago by Galileo they would now be much further along. I think that it is remarkable that science educators so often rely on social science research that actually fails to conceive its methodology in the genuine sense of experimentalism as Dewey and Suchting describe it. Perhaps that is why a kind of constructivism based on “subjective empiricism” and not objective experimentalism has been able to advance so far among science and mathematics educators in the international community.
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