CEPA eprint 3638


Glasersfeld E. von & Smock C. D. (1974) Introduction. In: Smock C. D. & Glasersfeld E. (eds.) Epistemology and education. Follow Through Publications, Athens GA: xi–xxiv. Available at http://cepa.info/3638
The purpose of this collection of essays is to suggest an alternative way of looking at knowledge, knowledge acquisition and the process of cognition. The approach is neither easy nor comfortable. It involves the demolition of several concepts which are part of our civilization’s “common sense.” Many will argue we cannot do without these concepts. But, constructivism does offer a theoretical explanation for the strange and disheartening fact that knowledge, no matter how clear and obvious it may be to the knower, cannot be simply communicated. It does this on the strength of a radical reassessment of the concept of knowledge, a reassessment which, though it is by no means a philosophical novelty, is contrary to the mainstream of philosophical tradition.
The idea that knowledge cannot be taught but must be constructed by the learner is not a new one. A fragment of the pre-Socratic Parmenides in the 5th century B. C. says that “being and thought are one and the same”; and Protagoras coined the often quoted and often misunderstood phrase “Man is the measure of all things.” Clearly the suspicion that what we call “knowledge” is in some way the product of the knower had already arisen. For the most part, however, pre-Socratic philosophy was imbued with an enthusiastic interest in the things of Nature and in the type of observation later referred to as “scientific.” Suspicions about the universal validity or the “absoluteness” of observational knowledge were not welcome. The Sophists were alone in their view that knowledge is inevitably conditioned by man, “the being that knows and acts” (Capelle, 1935). But even they viewed this as a regrettable limitation. The foundation of the theories of knowledge that have come and gone since was shaped by the Observers of Page xii Nature, with their optimistic common sense attitude. Yet, the Sophists! suspicions about knowledge and the process of knowing were never quite eradicated.
The interest in Nature, slowly but persistently fed by the inquisitive spirits of the Renaissance and formally established as “science” by Galileo, became predominant in the second half of the 17th century. Newton’s mechanics, then, was celebrated as the ultimate explanation of the real world and as the purest and most reliable form of knowledge. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, at about the same time, the suspicion surfaced again that knowledge and explanation might have more to do with the knower and the explainer, than with what was being known and explained. George Berkeley (1710) and the little-known Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1710) formulated theories of knowledge which, though different in many details, agreed with the Parmenidean fragment that “being and thought are one.” Again, it was an unpopular epistemology, and it still is, for the most part, unpopular today. Since then, however, two things have happened which, to us, seem particularly relevant to a discussion of what “knowledge” is, how it is acquired, and how its acquisition might be enhanced.
First, there was Kant’s monumental effort to formulate the epistemological problem in a consistently rational way so that all questions that in any sense touched upon it might be answered rationally. We do not intend to assess Kant’s contribution to contemporary thought nor are we competent to do so. One fundamental, and simple, point, however, serves as a stepping stone towards many ideas expressed in the essays written for this volume. Man’s experience of the world, according to Kant, is necessarily within a framework of space and time; i.e., space and time are inherent in man’s way of experiencing. They are characteristics of the human organism in much the same sense in which, say, a lens and a focal plane are essential parts of a Page xiii camera. If we accept Kant’s view, it is clear that to gain objective knowledge of the world, we should have to subtract space and time from our experiences.
And that is not all. Even if we assume that all spatial and temporal aspects could be pruned from an experience, we should then have to be able to become aware of the pruned experience in a way that is not like our usual way of experiencing, in that the experienced item must not be placed into the framework of space and time. Clearly, this would be quite impossible, unless we give up the idea that our way of experiencing necessarily adds a spatiotemporal framework. In other words, if we adopt Kant’s view of experience, we may believe that there is an objectively real world, but we cannot possibly tell how it is or what it is like, because what we can represent to ourselves, what we “know” rationally, is the result of our specific way of experiencing.
It should be emphasized that all this concerns “rational” knowledge; that is, knowledge that has some form of invariance, that can be intersubjectively replicated, and about which we can communicate. There may well be other, more “direct” forms of experience that yield results which are not within the spatio-temporal framework; whatever they may be, we should not call them “knowledge” in the rational sense with which we are concerned here.
The second event which has modified the basis of epistemological discussions was the conceptual revolution in physics. This revolution has significantly changed the balance of parties in any debate on the nature of knowledge and it has turned the “constructivist” suspicion into an approach that now seems as tenable – if not more so – than any other.
When Berkeley and Vico developed their ideas at the beginning of the 18th century, they did it not only against the common sense views accepted Page xiv in everyday life (which, where epistemology is concerned, are probably no different today), but also in direct opposition to the theory of knowledge represented by the work of the great physicists that determined the intellectual climate of their time. In our century, however, it was precisely the work of the great physicists that has undermined the traditional assumptions of epistemology and that, once again, has focused interest on the constructive activity of the “being that knows and acts.”
The authors of the essays presented here are all proponents of this shift of focus. Their main interest lies in man, the knower, and in their view “knowing” and “acting” are never detached one from the other.
We have called this school of thought “Radical Constructivism,” because it attempts to coordinate “constructivist” ideas from a number of very different sources and, above all, to strip them of the compromises with which they are encrusted. Each of our authors treats constructivism in his own way and from his own particular perspective. To a large extent the essays are concerned with different aspects of cognition and with a variety of cognitive structures. Yet, the authors agree in their radical interpretation of the concept of knowledge. The reader should keep this point in mind, for without constant awareness that “knowledge,” in these essays, is defined in a wholly unconventional way, most of what is said will be misunderstood.
“Knowledge,” not only in common usage but also in most of the current psychological and philosophical literature, is always tacitly assumed to be knowledge of an existing world. That is to say, what we know is assumed to be an aspect of an independent reality, a reality that exists by itself and in itself. For the traditional philosopher, as well as for the man in the street, knowledge seems inextricably tied to ontology; thus, knowing is a process of finding out what is. From the constructivist point of view, the assumption of a world of being, of ontological reality, makes epistemology Page xv a circular enterprise. As Maturana (1970, p. 2) has recently put it: “…the a priori assumption that objective knowledge constitutes a descripttion of that which is known… begs the questions what is to know? and how do we know?”
Togive up the belief in the possibility of gaining objective knowledge of an absolute reality is a step most of us are reluctant to take. In Piagetian terms it is perhaps the ultimate, most difficult task of decentration. To move the center of the universe to some unknown place, far away from our little planet, was no doubt an awesome step for those who first made it. To relinquish the idea of an all-powerful father who, if the need arose, would protect us, is still a difficult step for many. The belief in an independent but discoverable world may be the last anthropocentric fiction we have to give up in the pursuit of the intellectual evolution we have embarked on. Everyone would like to think that what he experiences is the “real” world and the only world there is to be discovered. The stress is on “discoverable” – that is the point that is so easily misunderstood. When Berkeley’s critics scoffed at his suggestion that what we call “to be” is no more and no less than “to be perceived,” they were quite unable to get away from the idea that perception must under all circumstances have an object, a something that is there before the activity of perceiving begins. Yet, insofar as Berkeley can or, rather•, must be interpreted as a constructivist, that is not at all what he meant. Much earlier he said: “The existence of any thing imaginable is nothing different from imagination or perception” (Berkeley, 1706/1930, p. 97). “Existence,” for him, is the result of perceptionor, as Piaget might say, the result of perceptual construction of invariances. Perception and cognition, thus, become active and creative instead of passive and receptive. The cognitive structures, Page xvi [page xvi missing] Page xvii difficulties and their experience is often thoroughly disenchanting. Communication does not seem to work, and so the first reaction is to search for other, better ways of communicating. Rarely, if ever, is the question brought up whether knowledge is, in fact, communicable in the usual sense of that term.
Many of the fads and foibles of educational practices, at all levels, are recurrent simply because of the failure to clearly conceptualize the epistemological bases of instructional theory and practice. The recent return to “discovery” methods, “open” classrooms, and activity-based curricula, accentuates, for example, the need for modification of teacher training programs in the direction of consistency with a constructivist epistemology. It is doubtful whether any technology (materials and methods) can be invented that will prevent teachers trained as “absolute realists” from using these “innovations” in such a way that the intended objectives can not be achieved.
In the essays that constitute this volume, the teacher will find few if any directives that could immediately be applied to his didactic activity. Indeed, if he happens to believe that the methods he has been using are close to optimal (since they are the distillate of innumerable generations of educators) and that their occasional failure is invariably due to the waywardness or fecklessness of his students,-this book is not for him.
If, on the other hand, he has come to feel, as so many have, that the correlation between the traditional teaching methods and educational success is at best fortuitous, and if, therefore, he has begun to cast about in search of new concepts for a theory of instruction, he may find in these essays some of the raw material he has been looking for. Page xviii
Von Glasersfeld introduces the reader to the basic principles of radical constructivism in the context of Piagetian epistemology. Drawing on philosophical as well as scientific precedents, he argues for a general shift of paradigm (Kuhn, 1970) with regard to the theory of knowledge and advocates a shift of focus from ontological considerations to the study of knowledge as construct and, hence, to the study of cognitive processes.
The implied conceptual shift from the “organism-as-black-box” to the “environment-as-black-box” is extremely difficult to carry through, even if one is inclined to try. The conventional philosophical ballast of language and the ambiguities of linguistic communication are increased and compounded by the reluctance of our cognitive apparatus to overcome our naive realist beliefs and conceptualizations. As von Glasersfeld clearly demonstrates, terms such as “object” and “environment” are indispensable for communication – but what meaning should we attach to these terms? Even if clear definitions are given early on, some pages later the reader often reverts to assimilating the terms to his preconceived cognitive structures. Until the constructivist epistemology becomes common sense and natural to us, we shall have to check constantly to determine the conceptual consistency of statements regarding the nature of knowledge and the optimal conditions for the acquisition of knowledge.
Hugh Gash explores similarities in the theories of knowledge propounded by Jean Piaget and John Dewey. That there are certain similarities has been noted by several cognitive developmental psychologists. Gash carries out a more critical comparative analysis. Dewey’s epistemology is presented as an account of the dynamic conceptual organization of purposive interactions with experienced sense data. The verb “to know,” which in the philosophical tradition denotes the passive reception of “knowledge” and thus a purely Page xix metaphorical activity, is here given the meaning of an active process, i.e., a true activity on the part of the knower. This interpretation is all the more plausible since it springs from an historical context characterized by Bridgman’s operationalism and Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty. One of the results is a distinction between the world as it “is,” which we cannot know, and the knowledge of a world which we construct. Gash argues that previous statements of the similarities between the epistemologies of Dewey and Piaget have not made explicit the radical nature of their theories, in particular the peculiar status they confer to the term “environment.” There are, of course, also differences between the theories of the two thinkers, such as Piaget’s “structuralism” and his distinction between figurative and operative processes. But Gash suggests that a fuller understanding of the basic similarities in these two theories of knowledge may help educators to become aware of the potential a constructivist view of knowledge might have for the educational process.
John Richards examines the nature of “knowledge” in modern mathematics. The mathematician’s enterprise, he says, is, after all, a human activity and, as such, it is dependent upon human cognition. If cognitive processes are, indeed, processes of construction rather than of replicating or depicting an a priori existing reality, then the focus of any explanatory effort must shift from what there is or may be to how we arrive at the conceptual constructs we actually have. Richards’ discussion, consequently, develops the dichotomy of a “logic of discovery” and a “logic of reconstruction.” Though the author does this through a review of the recent divergent trends in the philosophy of mathematics, his findings should be of great interest to teachers of mathematics. On the one hand, it would seem that the logic discovery, once it is explicated, should be wholly compatible with what Page xx Ceccato (see his contribution to this volume) calls the awareness of mental operations. On the other, it follows from Richards’ conclusions that the method of mathematical instruction cannot be the imparting of mathematical “truths” but must, instead, be the setting up of circumstances which will induce the learner to achieve in his own mind – i.e., to reconstruct – conceptual entities and relational functions the mathematicians have “discovered.” The logic of reconstruction, thus, becomes crucial to the didactic endeavor and Richards’ analysis suggests that to ensure the learner’s reconstruction, a good deal more is needed than the mere description of the mathematical constructs he is to acquire.
William Powers, who came to cybernetics as a physicist and electrical engineer, arrived at a constructivist position through purely technical considerations. Originally he was not at all concerned with epistemology or with philosophy in a wider sense. From designing models for the monitoring (and thus prediction) of the motion of stars he proceeded to the design of models for the prediction of organismic behavior. His shift of interest was similar to that of the pre-Socratics. Unlike the natural scientists of the 5th century B.C., however, he quickly became aware of the crucial difference such a shift of interest implied: while the physicist-engineer can afford for a long time to remain a naive realist, because he is exclusively concerned with items that are all wholly within his experiential field, the investigator of living organisms very soon runs into the problem of perception and, if he is consequential, into the problem of how he himself perceives and observes the organisms he wants to investigate.
From the observer’s point of view, another organism quite naturally is in an environment which is no less observable than the organism. That is why the observer can close the loop from the organism’s “output” to the organism’s Page xxi sensory “input” by a cause-effect link outside the organism, i.e., a link in the “external world.” But the moment the observer considers himself and begins to investigate his own organization, he can no longer observe a boundary between organism and environment because there is no way for him to step across his own experiential interface. His “external world” thus can consist of nothing but the collection of invariances he is able to establish between the data he registers as “output” and those which he registers as “input.” These invariances are the organism’s constructs and, as such, necessarily the result of inductive inference. As Maturana (1970, p. 39) puts it: “A living system, due to its circular organization, is an inductive system and functions always in a predictive manner: what happened once will occur again.”
Being an engineer, Powers was perhaps particularly sensitive to the requirement of economy in explanation and predictive modelling. He could not be satisfied with the traditional behaviorist model of organisms which, because it is dependent on an observable environment, cannot be generalized to include the observing organism. His negative feedback model develops in the
opposite direction: it starts as a model of the observer and is then generalized by treating any observed organism as an observer in its own right, maybe simpler than the human observer but in any case operating along similar lines. This, indeed, is what educators could glean from -Powers’ work. If the knowledge a feedback system can acquire is the result of induction, it cannot be passively assimilated in any way by a student, the teacher can only try to create circumstances that will lead the pupil to make the required inferences.
Paul Silverman applies the model of the “feedback loop” to cognitive development and the organism’s construction of “invariants.” Radical constructivism, for him, is an epistemology that enables the scientist to Page xxii synthesize his experience of his own purposiveness with an explanatory system for that experience. The strong strongest argument for constructivism, he maintains, springs from the internal consistency of the explanations it generates. Pursuing the parallelism between Piaget’s definition of “knowledge” (i.e., structures that remain constant though their component parts may change) and the idea of converging definitions that derives from Bridgman’s operationalism, he argues that both can be understood as a feedback system. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is built upon the concept of equilibrium (homeostasis). Scientific theories – and that is scientific knowledge – live, develop, and die as a function of their internal consistency; i.e., by the relative absence of contradictions. And contradictions, in a very real sense, are disturbances of the logical equilibrium. The model of the feedback loop, thus, is germane to both, because its function is precisely the elimination or neutralization of disturbances with regard to a given parameter or “reference value.” Though Silverman does not expound the educational implications of his analysis, these implications are clearly compatible with the basic notions that are made explicit in the essays by Ceccato and Smock.
Silvio Ceccato, one of the European pioneers of cybernetics and Director of the Center for Cybernetics and Language Analysis of the University of Milan since 1949, considers himself a technician of the mind rather than a philosopher. His operational analyses of mental activities are an attempt to supply the constructivist model of “knowledge” and “reality” with a base of well-defined, repeatable, and even mechanizable operations. While other constructivists (e.g., Vico, Bridgman, Dewey, and also Piaget) rarely, if ever, get down to the level of the elementary operations by means of which the organism coordinates his experience to form invariantes and, eventually, Page xxiii a construct that might be called “reality,” Ceccato has from the very beginning pursued the question: How is it made and what does an organism do to make it?
Though his main work is theoretical and makes difficult reading, his contribution to this volume deliberately avoids the more complicated technical issues. His message, here, springs directly from his recent work with school children and embodies in an extraordinarily lucid way the approach to education which modern constructivists are propagating. In simple terms it could be expressed by saying: Since knowledge is the result of construction on the part of the knower, let us try to make children aware of how the mind constructs.
Charles Smock, on the strength of many years’ experience with Piagetian theory and research, as well as with educational programs, discusses the role of the teacher and the problems of the educator in general. Though in his conclusions he agrees with Ceccato, he presents, as it were, the other side of the coin. Where Ceccato says, “as far as the teacher is concerned, what is needed is only patience and a little fantasy,” Smock is at great pains to show that it is not a simple matter to guide teachers towards the kind of patience and fantasy that create a climate in which the children’s construction of knowledge can proceed unhampered. In spite of the fact that his essay was written before the others, it serves well to demonstrate how theoretical considerations of epistemology are, indeed, not merely relevant but quite indispensable if we want to attain a productive methodology in education. His eloquent plea for a constructivist attitude in teachers should go a long way towards convincing any active educator that it would be worth trying a new paradigm of instruction and that the laborious and so often fruitless efforts to impart knowledge might be successfully superseded by attempts to show the student how he can construct for himself the knowledge that is considered the backbone of our civilization.
Berkeley, George, A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge. Dublin: Jeremy Pepyat, 1710.
Berkeley, George, Commonplace book (1705-1708), edited by G. A. Johnston, London: Faber & Faber, 1930.
Capelle, Wilhelm, Die Vorsokratiker, Stuttgart: Alfred Korner, 1935 (4th edition, 1953).
Kuhn, Thomas S., The structure of scientific revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962 (2nd edition, 1970).
Maturana, Humberto R., Biology of cognition, Report No. 90, Urbana, Illinois: Biological Computer Laboratory, University of Illinois, 1970.
Vico, Giambattista, De antiquissima italorum sapientia (1710), Naples: Stamperia de’ classici, 1858.
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