Constructivism reconstructed: A reply to Suchting
Glasersfeld E. (1992) Constructivism reconstructed: A reply to Suchting. Science & Education 1: 379–384. Available at http://cepa.info/3637
Under ordinary circumstances, an author faced with a long and detailed critique that dismisses his paper as mostly unintelligible and for the rest simply confused, should be devastated, if not silenced for ever. But the circumstances in the case at hand are not ordinary. W. A. Suchting calls his effort Constructivism Deconstructed and within the first six pages he provides an instructive example of his very own method of deconstruction. Though the traditional philosopher’s style of writing might deceive the unwary reader, Suchting’s method has the virtue of simplicity and will undoubtedly be effective – especially with readers who do not have access to the original piece.
The term deconstruction has mostly been used in the context of texts or works of art, and it is clear that this deconstructing procedure cannot be quite the same as in the dismantling of a car engine or a chain saw. Yet, in the case of a text, just as with the mechanical items, it must begin from the surface, loosening, as it were, a screw here and there to separate the parts in order then to examine both them and the relations that are supposed to justify the structure as a whole. The surface of texts are printed words, and it is therefore quite proper that Suchting, when he begins to deconstruct, focuses his attention on a string of words on the first page of my paper (Glasersfeld 1989).[Note 1] But Texts, too, have parts, e.g., sentences, whose integrity must be respected, at least at the beginning of any deconstruction. And there is an immediate surprise. The fifteen words Suchting quotes are the first of my abstract, not of my paper (Suchting: 3). But this is a minor consideration. More importantly, these fifteen words are the beginning of a sentence that runs as follows:
The existence of objective knowledge and the possibility of communicating it by means of language have traditionally been taken for granted by educators. (Glasersfeld 1989: 121)
Suchting, however, presents my fifteen words preceded by the phrase: ‘The paper opens by saying that what constructivism denies is …’ and demonstrates with much logical acumen that this piece of the text can be ‘excised’ because the negation makes part of it meaningless. He then proceeds to use this result as launching pad for an erudite critique of my use of the word ’objective’ (both in the quoted excerpt and on the last page of my essay) and to show that I am not only confused but indeed ignorant of the word’s meaning.
Struck by the obvious power of an opening move that consists in constructing yourself what you then deconstruct, it is not surprising that I went on reading with the greatest interest. And sure enough, though undoubtedly the most transparent instance, the gambit is used many more times in Suchting’s critique. But as I can neither hope that many readers will consult the original text nor want to quote myself in every paragraph, I shall give another example.
Suchting picks the phrase ’the world as it is’ from a footnote and declares: ’The problem with expressions such as these in the context of what is being denied is that, taken by themselves, they are vacuous’ (p. 5). The oddity here is that my phrase does not stand in the context of negation but in a note that tries to lay out the ambiguity in the current usage of the word ’objective’; and the note does not stand by itself but is attached as amplification to a sentence of the text (Glasersfeld 1989: 124) that contains the expression: ’objective representation of an observer- independent world’.
On page 7, my statement that constructivists ’posit knowledge as a mapping of what, in the light of human experience, turns out to be feasible’ is turned into it is said (135) that knowledge qua feasible is a “mapping”, and a couple of lines further Suchting transforms this into: ‘…and “mapping” is what replaces “description”/“representation”/“correspondence”’. Three pages later (9-10), this spurious interpolation is ’deconstructed’ in a lengthy passage to bring to light that, deep down, constructivism after all does dabble with a ’correspondence theory of truth’.
Professing disappointment at not being able ‘to “construct” a clearer picture of constructivism than is available in the paper under examination’ (p. 17), Suchting quotes what Russell once (I believe rather flippantly) said of mathematics, namely that it is a subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true’ (p. 17). Apparently my critic is still asking whether constructivism is ’true’. This is precisely the reaction of Vico’s contemporary (see Glasersfeld 1989: 123), who wanted Vico to prove the theory of knowledge he had been expounding and who thus showed that he was disregarding a core posit of the theory, namely that knowledge can never be considered true in the conventional sense (i.e., correspond to an observer-independent reality) because it is made by a knower who does not have access to such a reality.
The next paragraph (p. 17) confirms that impression. ’Knowledge’, he says, in any ordinary, understandable sense of the word requires something other than the knowledge of which the latter can be said to be knowledge’. I understand this to mean that knowledge must be a representation of something else, and this, indeed, is the conventional meaning of the word. It seems a trifle wayward, however, to insist on this meaning in the ’examination’ of a paper whose author announces as early as in the abstract that he intends to use ’knowledge’ in Piaget’s adaptational sense to refer to those sensory-motor actions and conceptual operations that have proved viable in the knower’s experience.
Concerning Vico’s Principle (VP), Suchting says ‘… according to VP we cannot be said to have access to “the true” and hence to knowledge’ (p. 18, my emphasis). Earlier, however, he reported Vico’s thesis number 1 (p. 15) which states that a knower can know only what the knower has made, i.e., the factum, and therefore (thesis 2, p. 16) a human knower cannot know God’s natural world. I would suggest that this is a flat contradiction – unless we admit that ’to know’ can be used in two different senses: Vico’s sense and that of traditional, representationist epistemology. Suchting unfortunately persists in disregarding the explicit announcement that constructivism accepts Vico’s theses and also agrees with Vico’s revolutionary declaration that ’the true’ (verum) is what has been ’made’ (factum).
It would take far more space than is available here to deconstruct Suchting’s ’more “relaxed” version of VP’ (p. 19) and, at least in my view, it would not add much to the discussion of constructivism. The reason is that Suchting characterizes this version by saying that, in it, ’the actual ‘creation’ of the elements and relations are not in question’. I take this to mean that they are considered ready-made or ’given’ raw material for any construction. This would be incompatible with a modern constructivism that sprang, as I have often said, from the immensely rich work of Piaget concerning precisely the child’s construction of concepts and conceptual relations. Personally, I would not want to call this ’creation’ because, although there is a certain novelty about the products, they are not conjured up ex nihilo.
Discussing a passage of my paper that mentions the child’s construction of the notion of ’others’, Suchting remarks: ‘…the consequence is that (a) the subject always experiences/knows other subjects and also (b) that there is a time … when the subject does not experience/know others’. He sees this as an example of ’self-contradiction’ and he is right – but the synonymy indicated by the slash between ’experience’ and forms of the verb ’to know’ is Suchting’s construction, not mine.
If knowledge, as I proposed (Glasersfeld 1989: 124), is intended to refer ‘to conceptual structures that epistemic agents, given the range of present experience within their tradition of thought and language, consider viable’, it should be clear that ’to know’ (in this restricted sense) cannot be equated with ’to experience’. Indeed, as I say later, ’the most frequent source of perturbations for the developing cognitive subject is the interaction with others’ (p. 136), and given that ’perturbation’ was defined as the failure of a ’scheme’ (a piece of knowledge that, so far, has proven viable) it follows that perturbations must be part of experience but are not in themselves knowledge (though they may lead to new knowledge via an accommodation).
Concerning my model of how the child might construct ’objects’ and ‘others’, Suchting refers to Wittgenstein, who led him to the conclusion ‘that there is no sensation-language (as it may be called) independent of and prior to object-language, … ’ (p. 22). This would seem to be an existential statement and, if it is, it is out of place in this context. I use the term ’model’ in the sense that was introduced by cybernetics, namely for a tentative construct, physical or conceptual, as stand-in for an inaccessible process that could yield a known result. In the case in point, namely the construction of an object-concept,[Note 2] the Piagetian model does not involve anything like a ’sensation-language’ but only the organism’s capability of making distinctions (say, in its visual field), acting upon the made distinctions, and, as I laid out in my paper, the ability to establish recurrences (of distinctions made). This model works remarkably well in our dealings with animals – for instance bees, who readily associate a particular color with the entrance to their hive and do not try to enter a hive marked with another color. It is a perfectly viable model and the fact that we may have not the foggiest idea of what might actually be going on in a bee’s head in no way diminishes that viability.
As Suchting mentioned earlier in his deconstruction of ’objectivity’, the Galilean transformation-equations (constituting a model of kinematics) have been partially replaced by Einsteinian equations. The Piagetian model for the construction of object-concepts may sooner or later be replaced by a more comprehensive one, but at the moment I know of no better.
Concerning the notion of ‘self’, my critic raises the point, ’strongly argued by many philosophers’, that it is ’the community of subjects/others that constitutes individual subjects, or, better, that self and other are correlative’ (p. 22). This may well be plausible on a later level of development where all sorts of abstract properties are conceptualized, but I was focusing on the beginnings. If Suchting has had the opportunity to spend a certain amount of time with an infant during its first year, he might have observed that there is a moment when the infant notices that biting its own toe is different from biting the rattle or the comforter. This, I suggest, pace Hegel and the other philosophers Suchting had in mind, is one of the first steps in the subject’s separation of the ‘self’ from the rest of the experiential world.
Though he cites Kant when it suits him, he chooses to disregard the Kant quotation (Glasersfeld 1989: 130) from which I explicitly derive my development of the notion of ’other’. Hence I am not too worried about the ’gap’ in my exposition (quoted from that very page) and which, in his romantic vein, the critic characterizes as a ’dark unbottom’d infinite abyss’ (p. 23).
Many of the arguments Suchting proffers against my brief account of early language acquisition (pp. 23-28) might be cogent had I not first taken some trouble to explain the Piagetian model of learning, the terms of ’assimilation’ and ’accommodation’, and the constructivist notion of viability. Taken together, I had hoped, these explanations would make it apparent that the use of words is learned as an instrumental activity and that the ’interpersonal fit’ that so profoundly disturbed my critic would be understood as gradually deriving from the accommodations following upon perturbations caused by the learner’s failure to achieve his or her goal.
Prefacing the last section, a most interesting comparison of Vico and Hobbes (pp. 28-34), Suchting describes the wonderfully benign, olympian position from which philosophers, he thinks, should approach the philosophical utterances of others. There he speaks of the need of ’sympathetic reading’, of asking ’whether we had really understood the point of his (the other’s) words or behaviour, and whether, this having been grasped, his words or behaviour might not seem quite intelligible to us’ (p. 28). It warmed my heart to see that he is able to adopt such an admirable attitude, even though he apparently reserves it for the dead and treats the living very differently.
The last item I want to bring up is Suchting’s uncovering of the fact that constructivism is a form of empiricism (pp. 11 and 34). Given that the paper he is criticizing repeatedly draws attention to the instrumentalist character of the ideas presented (Glasersfeld 1989, pp. 28, 135, 136), his discovery is not much of a revelation. His attempt, however, to translate the terms I used into what he considers the dictionary of ’a standard, middle-of-the road, more or less recent empirical position’ (p. 11) shows not only that I have totally failed to get my meaning across, but also that Suchting is not above playing fast and loose with meanings in general. His equation – adapted” = “confirmed”’ deprives the biological term of its instrumentalist core meaning, namely to have the wherewithal to survive or, as I might say, to be viable. The equation ’scheme” = “theory”’ disregards the fact that I explicitly used the term ’scheme’ in the Piagetian sense of ’scheme of action’ or ’scheme of operation’ (adopting a computer metaphor, schemes could be seen as programs or subroutines). And I doubt that many standard empiricists would agree to use the term ’theory’ for goal-directed action patterns, which is what a large part of children’s and adult’s schemes are. No more acceptable is the jump from one domain to another when ’perturbation’ is translated as ‘disconfirmation’/‘falsification’, because the latter involves, even for empiricists, some notion of truth, whereas the former is tied to the notion of viability. Instead of bothering Horace, I would quote the old Italian saying: traduttore traditore.
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,[Note 3] Berkeley’s principle that it is ’impossible for us to conceive a likeness except only between our ideas’,[Note 4] and it not only accepts Hume’s thesis that the causal relation requires an experiencer,[Note 5] 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.
In his conclusion, Suchting asserts that constructivism claims to be ‘the New Age in philosophy of science, … ’ (p. 35). Once more he is off the mark, because he could have read on the second page of my paper that I consider my view ’not as a new invention but rather as the result of pursuing suggestions made by much earlier dissidents’ (Glasersfeld 1989: 122). Indeed, it might have been this very sentence that prompted him to call constructivism a gallimaufry – an unkind epithet, but not inappropriate, because radical constructivism certainly (and explicitly) combines several ideas that the Western philosophical establishment left by the wayside in the course of history.
Underlying most of Suchting’s argumentation seems to be the tacit assumption that Truth, if not self-evident, can at least be recognized when it is professionally presented. For a constructivist this is an illusion. From its perspective, Truths are replaced by viable models – and viability is always relative to a chosen goal. To end my reply I want to quote something I only recently read: ’Theory can simply continue doing what all discursive practices do: attempt to persuade its readers to adopt its point of view, its way of seeing texts and the world.’[Note 6] – The failure to persuade a critic at least to see one’s point of view is always painful; but it also generates a salutary perturbation that may lead one to find better ways of expression.
Glasersfeld, E. von: 1989, ’Cognition, Construction of Knowledge, and Teaching’, Synthese 80, 121-140.
Note that in Piaget’s theory the development of an ’object-concept’ is a necessary but preliminary step to the construction of ’object permanence’.
Locke, J.: 1690, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter 1, Section 4.
Berkeley, G.: 1710, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part 1, Section 6.
Hume, D.: 1750, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Essay VII, Part I.
Mailloux, S.: 1985, ’Truth or Consequences: On Being against Theory’, in W. J. T. Mitchell (ed.), Against Theory, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 65-71.
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