CEPA eprint 3753

Psychological constructivisms: A metatheoretical differentiation

Chian G. & Nuzzo M. L. (1996) Psychological constructivisms: A metatheoretical differentiation. Journal of Constructivist Psychology 9: 163–184. Available at http://cepa.info/3753
Table of Contents
Constructivism: A term in search of meaning
The opposites: Knowledge as invention and knowledge as reflection of reality
Knowledge as representation of reality and psychotherapeutic approaches based on this view
Knowledge as construction of realities and psychotherapeutic approaches based on this view
Knowledge as linguistic action and psychotherapeutic approaches based on this view
As the constructivist movement spreads throughout the contemporary psychological literature, the meaning of the term constructivism is loosening and has become permeable to rather different approaches. This excessive permeability is one of the reasons why in recent years there has been a proliferation of labels suggested by several authors to point out relevant differences under the umbrella of constructivism/ constructionism. In this article, we attempt to contribute to a systematization of the field by using the knowledge/reality relationship as a metatheoretical criterion of differentiation among the several psychological perspectives on personal knowledge. In doing so we fix certain terms to the different views of knowledge, suggesting their discriminative use. Brief references to the psychotherapeutic approaches based on the metatheoretical perspectives considered make clear their different implications at the applied clinical level.
In his foreword to The Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? (Contributions to Constructivism), Watzlawick (1981/1984) made reference to the consideration of reality as an invention and wrote that “a rather unfortunate term, constructivism, is gaining acceptance” (p. 10). According to Watzlawick, the term is “unfortunate because, first, the word already has an established but somewhat different meaning in traditional philosophy; second, it refers to a short- lived movement in the arts … ; and, third, it is ugly” (p. 10). In spite of Watzlawick’s opinion, in the last decade the term has spread throughout the psychological community: The recent renaming of this very journal is significant in this connection. But in the meantime the term has come up against what we believe is a fourth and more important drawback: that is, in Kelly’s (1955/1991) terminology, a loosening of its meaning and a resultant permeability to different approaches. In other words, the pervasiveness of constructivism within psychology and psy‑chotherapy has been realized at the cost of a progressive dilution of its meaning.
Our purpose in this article is to emphasize the most important differences within this area in order to facilitate the conversation about constructivist/constructionist ideas. To this end, we consider the knowledge/reality relationship as a metatheoretical criterion of differentiation among the several psychological perspectives on personal knowledge. On this ground, we distinguish an epistemological constructivism from a hermeneutic constructivism, while questioning the reference to constructivist assumptions by other cognitive perspectives. In doing so, we fix certain terms to their different views of knowledge, suggesting their discriminative use. Brief references to the psychotherapeutic approaches based on the metatheoretical perspectives considered make clear the significant differences at the applied clinical level.
Constructivism: A term in search of meaning
Consider the general definition proposed by Mahoney (1988): “Psychological constructivism refers to a family of theories that share the assertion that human knowledge and experience entail the (pro)active participation of the individual” (p. 2). This definition, based as it is on a dimension of (pro)activity/reactivity, is not at all helpful in specifying what constructivism is and is not. After all, the human organism is regarded as reactive and passive only in mechanomorphic psychologies such as Freudian psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and Gestalt psychology. Anthropomorphic psychologies, such as Jung’s and Adler’s heterodox psychoanalyses, North American psychophenomenologies, and humanistic and existential psychologies, all share a view of the human organism as intrinsically active and in some sense constructive (Marhaba, 1976). And, of course, most cognitive psychologists would assent to Mahoney’s definition, finding a feature of individual activity in the personal process of symbolic representation of reality. On the other hand, many other constructivist psychologists reject a representational view of knowledge.
As a consequence, the specification of one’s theoretical position or psychotherapeutic approach as constructivist or constructionist (the latter term is considered synonymous with the former by several authors) is not even incompatible with the acceptance of a realist or objectivist metatheoretical assumption, or of a rationalistic cognitive perspective. It is not sufficient to specify anything, so much so that Steier (1991) pointed out that “there have been many who have adopted a constructivist label on a package whose contents are still defined by ‘objectivist’ inquiry” (p. 3) and von Glasersfeld (1993) regretted that many of the constructivisms that arise every 6 months even represent attempts to safeguard the traditional realist position.
For the same reason, the attempts to specify epistemological, theoretical, and practical contrasts between traditional cognitive and constructivist psychotherapies (Mahoney, 1991; Mahoney & Lyddon, 1988; Neimeyer, 1993a, 1993b) rest on distinctive features that are too comprehensive or, on the contrary, not likely to be shared by all the “constructivist” psychotherapists. Neimeyer (1993a) appeared to be aware of these “variations on a constructivist theme” when he wrote that “constructivist psychotherapy is better viewed as a ‘fuzzy set’ with indistinct boundaries, whose members manifest considerable diversity and even occasional contradiction” (p. 224).
This excessive permeability is one of the reasons why in recent years several authors have suggested a proliferation of labels to point out relevant differences among the approaches that are placing themselves under the umbrella of constructivism/constructionism (see Table 1). We consider many of these attempts to elaborate the field to be weakened by two major difficulties.
The first difficulty regards the choice of discriminant dimensions that are unable to make sense of the complex articulation of the broader constructivist area. For example, the discriminants of reflexivity (Steier, 1991), innate/constructed affectivity (Armon-Jones, 1986), and the greater or smaller “belonging” of an object of construction to the construing subject (Soffer, 1993) appear to be implications of higher order, more relevant dimensions. Exceptions are represented by von Glasersfeld’s (1974) sharp distinction between radical and trivial constructivism based on an epistemological criterion and by Moshman’s (1982) reference to Pepper’s (1942/1970) root metaphors for world hypothesis.
Table 1: Suggested distinctions among types of constructivist/constructionist paradigms
ProponentDistinctionCriterionvon Glasersfeld (1974)Trivial vs. radical constructivismMatch/fit between knowledge and realityMoshman (1982)Exogenous vs. endogenous vs. dialectical constructivismExternal structures (environment) / internal coordinations (previous knowledge) / interaction (subjective experience) as sources of knowledgeArmon-Jones (1986)Weak vs. strong constructionismExistence of a limited range of natural emotions / emotions as irreducibly sociocultural productsMahoney (1988)Radical vs. critical constructivismIdealistic/realistic ontological assumptionSteier (1991)Naïve or first-order constructivism vs. second-order constructivism or social constructionismNon-self-reflexive / self-reflexive research on other persons’ constructions of realitySoffer (1993)Weak vs. strong constructivismObject of construction’s smaller/greater “belonging” to the construing subject
The second difficulty is that many authors misunderstand the views of other scholars of constructivism. We believe Mahoney’s (1988) discrimination between radical and critical constructivism is a good example in this connection, because we regard it as arising from a misinterpretation of other authors’ – particularly von Glasersfeld’smetatheoretical positions (we shall detail Mahoney’s discrimination later on). We also believe that some of the logical contradictions that Held (1990) denounced as committed by some proponents of constructivism would disappear in the light of a deeper understanding of the specific kind of constructivist presuppositions upheld by the authors concerned in the matter.
A third, minor source of confusion is represented by the use of terms, such as invention, representation, and construction, whose prevailing meaning is different from that given to them by some authors. For instance, the term invention used by Watzlawick (1981/1984) carries an idealistic view of knowledge that is far from the author’s intention.
The opposites: Knowledge as invention and knowledge as reflection of reality
What all the different psychological perspectives that make reference to constructivism share is, in our opinion, an attempt to overcome the traditional philosophical opposition between realism and idealism. Whereas realism holds that material objects exist externally to us and independently of our sense experience, idealism holds that no such material objects or external realities exist apart from our knowledge or consciousness of them, the whole universe being dependent on the mind or in some sense mental.
Idealism and realism can be regarded therefore as antithetical answers to the question, Does an external reality exist? (Figure la). In the negative case, the knowledge we presume to have of an external reality is nothing but an invention without any foundation, and the knowledge/reality relationship is consequently one of coincidence. In the affirmative case, the possibility arises of knowing such external reality as a reflection, and the knowledge/reality relationship can aim at being one of correspondence.
Figure 1: Different ways of conceptualizing the knowledge/reality relationship.
If one analyzes these same positions in terms of the subject/object relationship, it is clear that they are two monistic solutions (Figure 2a). Idealism entails a radical form of subjectivism to the extent that it regards the subject as the prime cause and foundation of the object. This kind of subjectivism cannot escape falling into solipsism, the view that one can be certain of nothing except one’s own experience. In contrast, according to realism the object precedes and embraces the subject. To the extent that the world of subjective experience corresponds to a set of organic processes, objectivism leads to reductive materialism.
Knowledge as representation of reality and psychotherapeutic approaches based on this view
Since its beginning, the cognitive revolution, restoring knowledge at the center of psychological inquiry, rejected the possibility of a mirrored and complete correspondence with reality (Figure 1d).
Figure 2: Different ways of conceptualizing the subject (S) / object (O) relationship.
In fact, both of the approaches prevailing in cognitive psychology and science – the human information-processing model founded on computation as the dominant metaphor and the ecologically oriented approach to cognitive processes that stresses the importance of the relationship between the person-as-knowing-being and the environment-as-known – share an ontological view definable as critical or limited realism. That is, both of them hold that our knowledge of the world is a little less than perfect, in the sense of incompleteness, rather than of veridicality (cf. Shaw & Bransford, 1977).
Within the ecological approach, knowledge coincides with direct perception, consisting in the collection of accurate information provided from the environment. Evolution selected the perceptive systems to extract meaning directly from the propagation of structured energy, without the necessity of resorting to any mediation. Cognitive structures, at most, prepare the perceptor to accept certain types of information rather than others by means of anticipatory schemata (Neisser, 1976). The relationship between knowledge and reality is in terms of an incomplete correspondence, that is, a correspondence limited to the genetically pretuned perceptive invariances that represent the ecologically meaningful properties of the perceiver’s world.
Within the computational model, the cognitive system is conceptualized and analyzed as a flowchart whose blocks represent the components and successive stages of the elaboration of information contained in environmental stimuli: perception, attention, memory, decision making, and production of responses able to reach an aim. Given that it is supposed that external stimuli cannot enter the organism directly, information consists in a representation in the form of symbols: An inferential process precedes perception. Thus, within a cognitive system, symbols represent more or less adequately some aspects of the real world; that is, they realize a representation of reality. The relationship between knowledge and reality is in terms of more or less symmetry between the representation of an object and the object itself, rather than in terms of (complete or incomplete) correspondence.
Given the usual gap between basic psychological theory and praxis, it is not possible to indicate therapeutic approaches that make explicit reference to the foregoing cognitive perspectives. Nevertheless, it is easy to show that many psychotherapies base their strategies and techniques of intervention on a view of disease – and consequently on a theory of cure – clearly derived by a limited realist, representational view.
Thus, when Beck (1976) defined cognitive therapy as “all the approaches that alleviate psychological distress” by correcting “faulty conceptions,” “erroneous beliefs,” “distortions of reality,” or “illogical thinking” (pp. 214-219), he revealed the realist and rationalist matrix of his view of psychological illness and cure.
The same can be said of Ellis’s (1962) rational–emotive therapy and its more recent differentiations, centered as they are on “irrational ideas” as the cause of emotional disorders and on their correction, substitution, or elimination through logical reasoning.
In other words, both Beck and Ellis, as well as many other cognitive therapists who follow similar models, make use of empirical disputations and reality testing to disprove irrational beliefs and help their clients think more “realistically” (cf. Neimeyer, 1993b).
Knowledge as construction of realities and psychotherapeutic approaches based on this view
The cognitive approach cannot be regarded, therefore, as an actual overcoming of the realism/idealism opposition. The activity attributed to the person in the process of representation of reality is limited to the operations of collecting and processing inputs coming from “out there.”[Note 1] It is the type of constructivism that von Glasersfeld (1974) termed trivial constructivism, in opposition to the radical constructivist epistemology that he saw as the foundation of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. All things considered, the definition of limited (opposed to extreme) realism seems to us the most appropriate.
According to Piaget (1967/1971), “the essential starting point … is the fact that no form of knowledge, not even perceptual knowledge, constitutes a simple copy of reality, because it always includes a process of assimilation to previous structures” (p. 4). Following this process of integration, previous structures can remain unchanged or undergo a more or less deep modification without any discontinuity with the previous state. That is, previous structures do not have to be destroyed, but rather can adapt themselves to the new situation.
The notion of adaptation implies that the development of knowledge is a recursive process, being founded on the individual’s previous knowledge (and therefore simultaneously constrained by this). For instance, the early structures the child acquires at the sensorimotor level represent the basis of many further operational structures.
According to von Glasersfeld (1982), however, Piaget’s notion of adaptation is often misunderstood in such a way that the more traditional view of knowledge as representation of reality is maintained.[Note 2] It is easy to understand cognitive adaptation as the generation of knowledge that corresponds more and more closely to an external world, but knowledge, according to Piaget, is tied to action, and its function is not to describe or to replicate the environment iconically.
To avoid such easy misinterpretation, von Glasersfeld (1977, 1980, 1982) has repeatedly suggested that one should replace the misleading connotation of adaptation by the term viability.
From the organism’s point of view, on the biological level as on the cognitive one, the environment is no more and no less than the sum of constraints within which the organism can operate. The organism’s activities and operations are successful when they are not impeded or foiled by constraints, i.e., when they are viable. Hence it is only when actions or operations fail that one can speak of “contact” with the environment, but not when they succeed. (1982, p. 615)
Consequently, “the ‘real’ world manifests itself exclusively there where our constructions break down” (von Glasersfeld, 1981/1984, p. 39). It is not possible to know reality as it is but only by it is not: Knowledge is a construction of possible realities (Figure 1c).
Von Glasersfeld (1981/1984) clarified the opposition between the trivial and radical constructivist views of knowledge by pitting the words match and fit against one another. The metaphysical realist – such as the trivial constructivist – “looks for knowledge that matches reality in the same sense as you might look for paint to match the color that is already on the wall you have to repair” (p. 20). But if we say that something fits, we have in mind a different relation: “A key fits if it opens the lock. The fit describes a capacity of the key, not of the lock. Thanks to professional burglars we know only too well that there are many keys that are shaped quite differently from our own but which nevertheless unlock our doors” (p. 21).
An even more clarifying analogy used by von Glasersfeld (1985) refers to the relation between the river and the landscape. The river forms wherever the landscape allows the water to flow. There is a continuous and subtle interaction between the inner “logic” of water (e.g., the fact that it must form a horizontal surface and cannot flow upward) and the topology of territory. Both the river and the landscape impose constraints on the watercourse and do it in inseparable ways. One could not say, for example, that the river turns to the right because there is a hill without implicitly presupposing the logic of water that prevents the river from flowing upward. Therefore, the river does not represent the landscape, but rather fits in it, in the sense that it finds its course between the constraints that impose themselves not from the landscape or from the logic of water, but always and necessarily from the interaction of the two.
The very same kind of subject/object relationship was offered by Piaget (1973) when he stated, “Knowledge does not begin in the I, and it does not begin in the object; it begins in the interactions…. There is a reciprocal and simultaneous construction of the subject on the one hand and the object on the other” (p. 20).
Kenny and Gardner (1988) pointed out that “both Kelly and von Glasersfeld indicate the existence of two ‘realities,’ that of extralinguistic reality and that of the constructed experiential reality of the subject” (p. 16). Both Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and Kelly’s personal construct theory,[Note 3] in other words, envision an interaction between the subject and the object of knowledge (Figure 2b), an interaction that is made possible by the presumed organizational closure of cognitive systems and that results in a relativistic view of the relationship between knowledge and reality.
In fact, it is really with the idea of a closure of cognitive systems that the subject/object dichotomy is substantially overcome and traditional realistic perspectives are actually abandoned.
Within cognitive science, the notion of organizational closure developed at the end of the 1970s with the appearance of the connectionist strategy. According to the closure thesis, autonomous systems, that is, systems defined as a unity by their organization, are organizationally closed. In Varela’s (1979) words,
Their organization is characterized by processes such that (1) the processes are related as a network, so that they recursively depend on each other in the generation and realization of the processes themselves, and (2) they constitute the system as a unity recognizable in the space (domain) in which the processes exist. (p. 55)
An understanding of living systems in terms of their organizational closure deriving from the self-referentiality of their processes has many implications that upend most usual theories about knowledge, learning, and communication. What we wish to underscore is the fact that because the functioning of a self-organizing system is the expression of its structure of connections, its operations are determined by its structure, not by external inputs having the value of instructions. In other words, the environment cannot specify the system’s changes but can only trigger them, acting as a source of perturbations.
Widely elaborated and formalized by Maturana and Varela (1973/1980; 1984/1987) in the ambit of the theory of autopoiesis and used by von Glasersfeld (see in particular von Glasersfeld & Varela, 1987) in his interpretation of Piaget,[Note 4] the notion of the autonomy of self- organizing systems and the subordinate notion of structural determinism can also be recognized in Kelly’s personal construct theory.
What Kelly (1955/1991) proposed under the rubric constructive alternativism was a “philosophical point of view” that Kelly himself refused “to elaborate into a complete philosophical system” (Volume 1, p. 12). Nevertheless, he made his “prior convictions” about the “kind of universe” he envisioned explicit (Volume 1, p. 5), as well as his attempts “to plot its position roughly with respect to some of the types of philosophical systems with which scholars are familiar” (Volume 1, p. 12).
It appears clear from his subsequent discussion that Kelly was trying to extricate his theory both from realism and idealism.[Note 5] And even if Kelly spoke often of representation of the environment, it is not difficult to find in his writings statements that clearly refer to a feature of structural determinism.[Note 6]
The difficulty in transcending the realism/idealism opposition is clearly illustrated by Mahoney’s comment on von Glasersfeld’s interpretation of Piaget. According to Mahoney (1988), von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism is “basically indistinguishable from ‘idealism” (p. 4) in that it denies the existence of any reality. Mahoney countered with a critical constructivism that does not deny the existence of a real physical world, although it acknowledges our limitations in knowing it. On the other hand, Mahoney’s critical constructivism is indistinguishable from critical (limited) realism. Mahoney himself, after all, said that “critical constructivists … are essentially ‘realists, ’ albeit ‘hypothetical, critical, or representational realists” (p. 4).
Mahoney’s distinction rests on an evident misunderstanding. When von Glasersfeld (1981/1984) stated that “radical constructivism … is radical because it breaks with convention and develops a theory of knowledge in which knowledge does not reflect an ‘objective’ ontological reality, but exclusively an ordering and organization of a world constituted by our experience” (p. 24), he was referring to the objectivity of knowledge, not to the existence of an ontological reality. After all, the notions of fit (i.e., of adaptation among the constraints of experience) and viability refer directly and clearly to a reality. Von Glasersfeld (1991) himself has subsequently made clear that “constructivism deals with knowing, not with being…. As a constructivist I have never said (nor would I ever say) that there is no ontic world, but I keep saying that we cannot know it” (p. 17). This is exactly the reason why we prefer to refer to this constructivist paradigm as epistemological constructivism (Figure 1c).
Personal construct theory is a theory of personality that, in Kelly’s intention, has its focus of pertinence in psychotherapy. This makes personal construct therapy the prototype – and in many respects also the avant-garde (Chiari & Nuzzo, 1993) – of the epistemological-constructivist approaches to change.
Change is seen, in fact, as a continuous recursive process of reconstruction of experience, as the fundamental condition for an optimal functioning because it results in the maintenance of an adaptation between a knowing system and its environment and in the conservation of an organizational coherence. In fact, a personal construct system appears as disordered when it encounters difficulties in modifying itself in its continuous interaction with environment, rather than in the presence of false perceptions or irrational beliefs.
In personal construct therapy even diagnosis is transitive, that is, “concerned with transitions in the client’s life” (Kelly, 1955/1991, Volume 2, p. 153), rather than aimed at furnishing a static description of the patient’s symptoms in the attempt of classifying him or her into a nosological category. Psychological disorder is seen in terms of dimensions rather than in terms of entities, so as not to incur the risk of reifying it and consequently of attempting to eliminate it from the patient who is affected with it, rather than trying to understand it as the result of a particular history of relation with the world, as the expression of a personal construction of reality.
A consideration of persons as self-organizing cognitive systems co-constituting the meaning of their experiential world in relation to others and an understanding of therapy as more creative than corrective and more exploratory than directive are central also in recent elaborations of personal construct therapy (Leitner, 1988) and nonKellian constructivist therapies (Guidano, 1991; Safran & Segal, 1990).
Knowledge as linguistic action and psychotherapeutic approaches based on this view
Even though epistemological constructivism overcomes traditional realistic perspectives, it is easy to distinguish another group of perspectives elbowing its way through the contemporary psychological literature and representing a proper tertium datur between realism and idealism. Although their historical backgrounds are different, all these approaches share a view of knowledge (and truth) as interpretation, an interpretation historically founded rather than timeless, contextually verifiable rather than universally valid, and linguistically generated and socially negotiated rather than cognitively and individually produced.
This view emerged within the philosophical field through members of the generically definable “hermeneutic family”: a group of thinkers whose theoretical limits are represented by Heidegger and Gadamer. Heidegger’s (1927/1962) overcoming of transcendental metaphysics linked to a notion of truth as conformity and Gadamer’s (1960) application of this attitude to the problem of language represent the conceptual points of reference for a series of developments, such as Merleau-Ponty’s (1945/1962) analysis of the embodiment of knowledge, cognition, and experience; Wittgenstein’s (1953) notions of linguistic games and forms of life; Derrida’s (1976) deconstruction of literary texts and the self; Goodman’s (1976, 1978, 1984) constructivist philosophy; Rorty’s (1979) neopragmatic approach to knowledge; Foucault’s (1979) analysis of power – knowledge relations; and Ricoeur’s (1983, 1985) theory of the dependency of the experience of time on the narrative structures imposed on experience. Kuhn’s (1962) and Feyerabend’s (1976) anti-foundationalist philosophies of science, Habermas’s (1971) critique of the neutrality of social science knowledge, and Clifford’s (1983) and Marcus’s (1982) questioning of the objectivity of ethnographic reports are various developments of this postmodern turn in other areas.
As to psychology, this type of general attitude, which we define globally as hermeneutic constructivism (Chiari & Nuzzo, 1993) for the aforementioned reasons, is witnessed by the recent emergence of several largely intertwined and overlapping disciplinary approaches: narrative psychology (Sarbin, 1986), storytelling psychology (Mair, 1988, 1989a), conversational psychology (Mair, 1989b), cultural psychology (Bruner, 1986, 1990)[Note 7] discursive psychology (Edwards & Potter, 1992), and postmodern psychology (Kvale, 1992).
The members of social constructionist movement share a similar attitude, according to which there is no given reality independent of the observer (Figure 1b).
At the basis of social constructionism (Gergen, 1982, 1985; Gergen & Davis, 1985; Harré, 1979, 1983; Shotter, 1984; Shotter & Gergen, 1989), there is basically a recognition of the role language plays in the discourse about the world. Given the frequent references to the theses of von Glasersfeld (1981/1984), von Foerster (1982), and Maturana and Varela (1973/1980, 1984/1987) in the social constructionist literature, the term constructivism is also used in referring to this movement. The term constructionism, however, is preferred by these authors, who want to stress the differences between constructionist and constructivist approaches and emphasize a link with Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) seminal book The Social Construction of Reality.
The main difference, according to Gergen and Gergen (1991), consists in the overcoming of the subject/object dichotomy in the constructionist approaches. From the perspective of the social constructionist stance,
it is not the cognitive processing of the single observer that absorbs the object into itself, but it is language that does so. Accounts of the world (in science and elsewhere) take place within shared systems of intelligibility – usually a spoken or written language. These accounts are not viewed as the external expression of the speaker’s internal processes (such as cognition, intention), but as an expression of relationships among persons. From this viewpoint, it is within social interaction that language is generated, sustained, and abandoned…. The emphasis is thus not on the individual mind but on the meanings generated by people as they collectively generate descriptions and explanations in language. (p. 78)
We believe this distinction applies correctly to epistemological constructivism but not to the approach of Maturana and Varela that Gergen and Gergen (1991) associated with von Glasersfeld.
Maturana’s (1978) ambitious aim was to understand cognition as a biological phenomenon and to show how self-consciousness (and everything else) emerges from language. Being a biologist and a scientist, he made use of scientific explanations but regarded the assumption of objectivity as unnecessary for them: He put objectivity “between parentheses,” assuming that everything that happens is construed by the observer in his or her praxis of living, as a primary empirical condition, and that any explanation comes in second.
Therefore the ontology of the observer represents simultaneously the unavoidable starting point and the problem to explain: To explain cognition and language, we must use cognition and language.
By means of reflections on the constitution and functioning of living systems, and epistemological and ontological reflections on the conditions to be satisfied in order to understand them, Maturana and Varela (1973/1980, 1984/1987) arrived at a conceptualization of living systems as autonomous systems (i.e., systems defined as a unity by their organization) characterized by autopoietic organization.[Note 8] The structure of the system realizes this organization and specifies the domains of perturbations, that is, what can interact with it. As long as a living system does not enter into an interaction destructive of its organization, we as observers will necessarily see between the structure of the environment and that of the living system a compatibility or congruence. As long as this compatibility exists, environment and living system act as mutual sources of perturbation, triggering structural changes. There is complementarity between them, a structural coupling that allows adaptation (Figure lb).
When a person enters into structural coupling with another person, it is possible that their interactions acquire in the course of their ontogeny a recurrent nature. The co-drifting pair give rise to a new phenomenological domain. Within this consensual domain, linguistic behaviors and human consciousness (and therefore observers) can emerge as products of recursive consensual coordinations of actions.
Cognition is thus a phenomenon that emerges as a realization of the autopoietic organization of living systems and is constitutive of their being.
Every interaction of an organism, every behavior observed, can be assessed by an observer as a cognitive act. In the same way, the fact of living – of conserving structural coupling uninterruptedly as a living being – is to know in the realm of existence. In a nutshell: to live is to know (living is effective action in existence as a living being). (Maturana & Varela, 1984/1987, p. 174)
Varela (1976, 1979) elaborated further the notion of complementarity, envisioning in it the possibility of a transition from dualities to trinities (see Chiari & Nuzzo, 1987, for a comparison between Kelly and Varela on complementarity and knowledge). By trinity, Varela (1976) meant “the contemplation of the ways in which pairs (poles, extremes, modes, sides) are related and yet remain distinct” (p. 62): the way they are not one, not two. According to Varela, this view of complementarity signifies a departure from the classical way of understanding dialectics. In the classical, Hegelian paradigm, duality is tied to the idea of polarity, a clash of opposites, and its basic form is symmetry: Both poles belong to the same level. The logic behind this dialectic is negation. Pairs are of the form “A/not A.” In the cybernetic or post-Hegelian presentation, in contrast, dualities are adequately represented by imbrication of levels, in which one term of the pair emerges from the other, and their basic form is asymmetry: Both terms extend across levels. The logic behind this dialectic is self-reference, that is, pairs of the form “it/process leading to it.”
Pairs of opposites are, of necessity, on the same level and stay on the same level as long as they are taken in opposition and contradiction. Pairs of the star form make a bridge across one level of our description, and they specify each other. (pp. 100-101)
The classical duality subject/object also can be seen in this complementarity framework (Figure 2c).
Social constructionism represents a conceptual point of reference for social psychologists and psychotherapists who have adopted a hermeneutic–constructivist perspective and make use of the notion of narrative as the organizing principle for human action.
Two prominent representatives of an interpretive and hermeneutic approach to therapy are Goolishian and Anderson (1981). Their narrative position is based on the following premises (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992):
Human systems are language-generating and, simultaneously, meaning-generating systems. The therapeutic system is such a linguistic system.Meaning and understanding are socially constructed, and we do not arrive at, or have, meaning and understanding until we take communicative action. A therapeutic system is a system for which the communication has a relevance specific to its dialogical exchange.Any system in therapy is one that has dialogically coalesced around some “problem.” The therapeutic system is a problem- organizing, problem-dis-solving system.Therapy is a linguistic event that takes place in a therapeutic conversation, that is, in a mutual search and exploration through dialogue in which new meanings are continually evolving toward the “dis-solving” of problems, and thus, the dissolving of the therapy system.The role of the therapist is that of a conversational artist – an architect of the dialogical process – whose expertise is in the arena of creating a space for and facilitating a dialogical conversation. The therapist is a participant-observer and a participant-facilitator of the therapeutic conversation.The therapist exercises this therapeutic art through the use of conversational questions, that is, asking questions from a position of “not-knowing” rather than asking questions that are informed by method and that demand specific answers.Problems we deal with in therapy are actions that express our human narratives in such a way that they diminish our sense of agency and personal liberation. In this sense, problems exist in language and problems are unique to the narrative context from which they derive their meaning.Change in therapy is the dialogical creation of new narrative, and therefore the opening of opportunity for new agency. We live in and through the narrative identities that we develop in conversation with one another. The skill of the therapist is the expertise to participate in this process.
In this article, we have tried to contribute to a systematization of the field of psychological constructivism by stressing the differences among several, self-described constructivist approaches at a metatheoretical level. We suggest that the label psychological constructivism should be limited to the set of theories and approaches that strive to transcend the traditional opposition between realism and idealism by adopting the metatheoretical assumption that the structure and organization of the known – the knower-as-known included – are inextricably linked to the structure of the knower. The link may be in the form of an ordering and organization of a world constituted by the person’s experience (epistemological constructivism) or in the sense that operations of distinctions in language constitute the generation and validation of all reality (hermeneutic constructivism).
Theories and approaches that claim the subjective representation of an observer-independent, “out there” reality are excluded by our definition of psychological constructivism. The traditional reference to a critical or limited realist metatheory seems the most appropriate for them, whereas the suggested definition of realist constructivism appears to be a contradiction in terms in light of our understanding of constructivism.
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Neisser’s approach is sometimes regarded as more constructivist than the computational model. In fact, in Cognitive Psychology, Neisser (1967) stated that the particu-lar approach he was personally interested in had as a central point the belief that seeing, hearing, and remembering are acts of construction making more or less use of sensory information according to circumstances. In his second, important contribution to cognitive psychology, meaningfully titled Cognition and Reality, Neisser (1976) revised – or, maybe, specified – his constructive approach, making clear its definitely realistic assumption. In fact, Neisser regretted that “some theorists have interpreted [his] constructive theory” so as to lead “rapidly to a sort of ‘perceptual relativism’ in which everyone’s view of the world is by definition as accurate as everyone else’s” (pp. 3031). Not only did Neisser reject this conclusion, but he went so far as to regard the notion of construction as almost superfluous and dispensable, because it does not succeed in explaining the veridicality of perception. In fact, Neisser held, “if percepts are constructed, why are they usually accurate? Surely perceiving is not just a lucky way of having mental images!” (p. 18). His answer was that “the information must be specific enough in most cases to ensure that the constructed percept is true to the real object” (p. 18). And such information, in line with Gibson’s (1979) view and with regard to seeing, is in the light.
Having outlined the many points of similarity between Kelly and Piaget, Salmon (1970) warned, “In their philosophical assumptions, Piaget and Kelly stand far apart. Piaget’s theoretical account rests on an absolutist view of truth. Assimilation, one half of the adaptation process, is defined as shaping outer reality to the inner conceptual world, while accommodation, the other half, represents a modification of the inner world to fit the demands of outer reality. Underlying such an account is the assumption that a person can directly experience pure reality and can distinguish between this and his inner conceptual world” (p. 214).
Rychlak (1981) discussed Kelly’s and Piaget’s theories in the same chapter as Kantian-constructivist theories. In fact, Rychlak reminded us that “Kant called himself a critical realist, meaning that he believed there was a reality of things in existence (which he called noumena), but that he could never know them directly” (p. 14). Kant was indeed the first philosopher “who was not a metaphysical realist, at least about what he took to be basic or unreducible assertions” (Putnam, 1981). According to Rychlak (1990), until the emergence of social constructionism, Kelly and Piaget were the only theorists to use a concept of construction in their theoretical explanations, even if Kelly’s interpretation of construction as a predicational rather than mediational process represented a great element of difference both from Piaget and the social constructionists.
Von Glasersfeld regarded the statement “L’intelligence … organise le monde en s’organisant elle-même” (“Intelligence … organizes the world by organizing itself,” Piaget, 1937, p. 311) as particularly explicit in this connection.
Consider in particular the following statements: “We presume that the universe is really existing and that man is gradually coming to understand it. By taking this position we attempt to make clear from the outset that it is a real world we shall be talking about, not a world composed solely of the flitting shadows of people’s thoughts. But we should like, furthermore, to make clear our conviction that people’s thoughts also really exist, though the correspondence between what people really think exists and what really does exist is a continually changing one” (Kelly, 1955/ 1991, Volume 1, p. 5).
The following ones seem to us particularly illustrative:“This personal construct system provides [man] both with freedom of decision and limitation of action – freedom, because it permits him to deal with the meanings of events rather than being helplessly pushed about by them, and limitation, because he can never make choices outside the world of alternatives he has erected for himself.”(Kelly, 1958/1969a, p. 88, emphasis added)”Within the realm of relevance his personal construct system defines for him, each man initiates what he says and does. Thus his words and his acts are not mere events consequent upon previous occurrences, but are expressions of what is relevantly affirmed and denied within his system.” (Kelly, 1966/1969b, p. 35).Kelly’s structural determinism is even more clear in his statement of the principle governing therapeutic interpretation: “All interpretations understood by the client are perceived in terms of his own system. Another way of expressing the same thing is to say that it is always the client who interprets, not the therapist. If the therapist is to be effective, he must take into account what the interpretation will mean to the client and not depend solely on the natural “correctness” of the interpretation he offers.” (Kelly, 1955/1991, Volume 2, p. 371)Nevertheless, within the Kellian community, only Kenny (1988; Kenny & Gardner, 1988) appears to acknowledge in all its relevance this feature of structural determinism. Highlighting that Kelly’s writings can be seen to focus on three central issues of the self-organizing system paradigm, namely, the personal system as self-stabilizing, self-transcending, and self-evolving, Kenny has interpreted Kelly’s fundamental postulate and the corollaries to mean that “auto-anticipation is auto-organisation” (Kenny & Gardner, 1988, p. 10).The organizational closure of a personal construct system has been sometimes questioned on the basis of Kelly’s seeming reliance on external reality as a source of validation/invalidation of constructs (e.g., Mancuso & Adams-Webber, 1982). Actually, it is easy to find confirmation of this position in Kelly’s references to “the revelation of events inviting the person to place new constructions upon them,” “the revision of one’s anticipations in the light of the unfolding sequence of events,” and so on.At the same time, it would be extremely hard to consider Kelly as referring to a “pure” observation of events, and Kelly (1955/1991) himself stated that “the constructions one places upon events are working hypotheses, which are about to be put to the test of experience” (Volume 1, p. 51, emphasis added), not to a reality testing (and experience is a construction). In other terms, individuals are presumed to use the hypotheses that they derive from their own construct system both to anticipate events and to assess their predictive accuracy. Thus, we share Warren’s (1964) opinion that Kelly used internal consistency, not correspondence with reality, as a criterion of validity.
In an earlier article (Chiari & Nuzzo, 1993), we regarded Bruner’s cultural psychology as a form of radical (i.e., epistemological) constructivism.
Autopoiesis is a word composed of the Greek words for “self” and “to produce.” In fact, Maturana (1978) defined autopoietic systems as a class of dynamic systems that are realized, as unities, as networks of productions (and disintegrations) of components that: (a) recursively participate through their interactions in the realization of the network of productions (and disintegrations) of components that produce them; and (b) by realizing its boundaries, constitute this network of productions (and disintegrations) of components as a unity in the space they specify and in which they exist. (p. 36)
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