Ernst von Glasersfeld

Constructing Communication

Andrea Pitasi (AP): Today as of August 21st 2001, we are at professor Von Glasersfeld's place, and we are starting our interview about constructivism and communication studies.

I'm very grateful to you, Professor Ernst von Glasersfeld, and I am delighted to be here. It's very kind of you to give me your time for this interview. Thank you very much.

I would be interested in the most important theoretical foundations of constructivism and how, in your opinion, these foundations could be applied in communication studies.

Ernst von Glasersfeld (EvG): Well...you know, that's a question that one can answer by writing a book or in one phrase. The on-phrase answer would be that "radical" constructivism does away with the traditional conception of communication. For your purposes, however, it might be better if I answer the question on a more personal level. How did I get into constructivism? And that was, in the first place because I was brought up with more than one language, and if you live in more than one language you very soon realize that there isn't one reality, but there are several different realities. This created my interest in epistemology long before I knew what the word epistemology meant.

The second reason, if you like, is that when I began to read epistemology I found it fascinating but also very unsatisfactory; the unsatisfactory part is that, from the very beginning of Western philosophy and epistemology, there were people who said that it is impossible to get to know an absolute reality and they had very good arguments, arguments that were never refuted by the philosophers. The philosophers tried to get round the arguments in one way or another, but they all ended up in metaphysics, which is fine but it's not a rational enterprise.

They could not handle the doubt that was launched by the Sceptics beginning with Pyrrho and others.

So I kept on reading. And I was lucky. I spent some years in Ireland and through a peculiar connection I became interested in Gian Battista Vico. Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" is based on Vico's philosophy. I was (and am) a great admirer of Joyce and I thought if he can base his last book on Vico, I had to read Vico.

And I was lucky because in the library in Dublin there was an old edition of Vico's "Scienza Nuova" in Italian, which I don't think anyone had ever read. But I could read it, and so I got into Vico.

At the same time I had two friends who were interested in philosophy and we talked about Berkeley, George Berkeley, the Irish philosopher. Vico and Berkeley are two philosophers who are, I think, the most likely starting points of constructivism. And then you have Kant who was very much a constructivist. He covered, I would say, about 80% of the ground of constructivism. But, as Schopenhauer later noticed, he was not quite consistent about it. He also was a careful man and realized that his was an unpopular philosophy. Perhaps that was one reason not to be too explicit about it.

Those are to me the main sources of constructivism.

AP: I see and I completely agree also with your interpretation of these theoretical roots and it is sad to find out that one of the greatest philosophers of all times had to be careful and to protect himself from the Zeitgeist, a paradox for a pre-constructivist.

EvG: And then comes Piaget who, after all, introduced the term constructivism in the last century (20th century, ndr) and became the constructivist par excellence.

AP: Perfect, thank you very much. Well, before you told me about your best way, I mean the personal way to explain the way you approach constructivism and I already know that you are interested in Vico as a person who more or less created the constructivism before constructivism. And you also quoted the "Antiquissima", another work in your book, a work by Vico.

EvG: Yes, yes.

AP: As you know Vico is no longer a famous philosopher in Italy, unfortunately...

EvG: Yes, a misfortune, indeed!

AP: But, you know, I have also some personal reasons to be interested in Vico because Vico is very much studied and still considered in the Suor Orsola University of Naples where I work so, you know, he's one of the pillars of local philosophy.

EvG: Well, there is something that may amuse you. When I retired from the department of psychology at the University of Georgia I had been the principal investigator of quite a number of research projects and I thought I would like to start a research project of my own now. I wrote a proposal which I sent to the National Science Foundation and several other agencies and the proposal was to go to Naples and to find out what happened when George Berkeley was in Naples for three months and met some of the people who knew Vico and must have met Vico too. I wanted to go there to find out what happened between Berkeley and Vico. Unfortunately I never got money to do that.

I have since then corresponded with a number of people who might have known about such a meeting and they say they don't believe that there is any record of it anywhere. I find this unbelievable. Vico published his "de Antiquissima" in 1710, Berkeley published his first main work in 1710, and about five years later he spent at least three months in Naples. He talked to Doria and to other people who were well acquainted with Vico. It's not conceivable that they did not meet and talked to each other. There are so many parallelisms in their ideas. They're not the same, but there are parallel...

AP: I think it would be a very intriguing connection to be investigated, absolutely important.

And how would you consider the evolution of constructivism, its history from Vico...you quoted some authors, you quoted Vico, you quoted Berkeley, you quoted different authors until Piaget, no?

EvG: Yes, well, there are others that you could mention, but before Piaget there is none who used the word "construction" or "constructivism" as a philosophical term.

And before Piaget there isn't anyone who put the idea of the individual construction of knowledge together with Darwin's idea of adaptation. That is what Piaget has done and in doing it he created a relationship between knowledge and reality that had never been heard of. I think that it probably is the most important aspect of constructivism. It has to be repeated, and repeated, and repeated because people will not take it in easily.

The relation between knowledge and reality is no longer a representational relation, it's not the picture of reality. but it's a relation of fitting into the possibilities of reality. This means that you don't know what reality is like, but you begin to learn what you can do in that reality and that's the most important aspect of constructivism.

AP: Yes but it is quite scary for people who normally use common sense.

EvG: It's very difficult!

AP: Yes, difficult to understand, but also at the same time I think scary for them because maybe the way they act is constructivist, but the way they describe what they do is more "realistic" or they think they are realistic, at least. People always say "reality is" when they should say "my point of view is".

EvG: Certainly.

AP: So they have their own categories, they have their own brain frames, but at the same time they would never say: "these are my brain frames", they would say: "this is reality".

And what about common sense? The difference, the gaps between common sense and the constructivist approach to knowledge. This is the other part of the initial question: how would you consider constructivism to understand how media and common sense interact, if they interact?

EvG: Well, when you say interact, I think of what happens with media and with the people who use media and are influenced by media. It doesn't break the constructivist rules, it follows pathways that are perfectly compatible with constructivism.

The question is at what point does epistemology become important, because it's on the level of epistemology that constructivism makes the difference. I have often said that a carpenter or even an engineer doesn't have to bother about epistemology, they learn their technology, they learn their techniques and they're all constructive, they don't have to worry about reality in any philosophical sense, the main thing is that what they do stands up, that it functions, that it fits into the world in which it is built. There's no difficulty there. It's in areas like psychology or education, where the question arises what the relation should be between our knowledge and the world in which we're living. There epistemology becomes important and then constructivism makes the difference.

AP: On the epistemological level I think that constructivism would be crucial for media and communication studies and I would like to know if you agree or not. Because of course people who work in the media may be an anchorman or movie directors and can easily ignore epistemology because...

EvG: Not only that. You see, I think, my difficulty with talking about media is this: does it involve only the technical part of spreading signals, if you will, or does it include the people who have a purpose in spreading the signals?

AP: In the way I'm using media, I mean the second.

EvG: Exactly, so the anchorman is someone who has a view of the world and who wants to propagate that view of the world, but he must never talk about constructivism and epistemology.

AP: Sure.

EvG: Because with that he would lose ground. So he has to pretend that he knows what the world is like and he's going to tell you, and you'd better believe it.

AP: Exactly, and for example the use of surveys, the use of polls in politics, no? So these are all techniques very important in the media to describe the reality.

EvG: To fix a reality.

AP: Exactly.

EvG: And to keep it fixed.

AP: According to a constructivist view: they sell the idea that they describe reality.

EvG: Yes.

AP: OK, so, in which way would constructivism be a crucial resource to understand how media fix reality?

EvG: Well, I don't think you can bring constructivism into that part of it. You can ask how does the anchorman construct the view that he wants to propagate and that's a construction, of course. But it does not get at the epistemological question of constructivism because the anchorman essentially doesn't care what reality is really like, he cares about propagating his view of a particular reality.

AP: But...well...as a general question how much is he aware that he's propagating his view? Or if he believes he's describing reality?

EvG: I don't know. I have the feeling that they all believe that they are really describing reality, they've been honest you know, they're telling it how it is. And that's a disaster. That's why I tried to stay out of the media as much as I could.

AP: I see, so you suggest to me also to stay as out of the media as...

EvG: No, I think you probably have a possibility of making it a little better, of sowing a little doubt here and there.

AP: I see, and in terms of key authors of constructivism...people of my generation, you know I am in my thirties, studied your works, professor von Foerster's works, and professor Watzlawick's and so on. But in terms of constructivism applied to communication and media the most popular and most considered author was Niklas Luhmann: what do you think about his works and his constructivism?

EvG: Well. I have great difficulties with Luhmann, I haven't studied him from the beginning, I have read a few things of Luhmann and I have difficulties understanding specifically what he means by communication. His communication becomes such a basic term in his philosophy that I'm not sure what he means by it. You see to me, as a radical constructivist, communication is, in a way, a misleading term, because it always suggests to people that when you're communicating something that something is in my head and I put it into some formal code and then you unravel the code and have that same thing in your head that I have.

I think, this is a non viable view of communication.

AP: How would you consider communication or, what kind of definition, or what kind of word would you use instead to describe it in functional terms?

EvG: Communication to me is the sending of signals. They may be of any kind, they may be words of a language or they may be signs on paper or they may be noises or whatever. But the interpretation of those signals is unfortunately not as simple as in the case of technical codes. Let me explain. If I give you a piece of paper on which it says that one dot is an "e", three dots are an "s", and so on for the whole alphabet, you have the Morse code and you can decode all telegrams transmitted in it. In the case of language, this doesn't exist. You interpret what I say according to your own experiences and not according to my experiences. I can never be sure what the meaning is that you read out of my words, because what moves from me to you are signals and not the meanings of signals. This to me is the basic fact of communication. As long as you use something like signals that run in a channel, you have to have a code to turn the signals into meaning. When we talk about media that is not the case. Everybody has to interpret what he reads or hears in the media according to his or her experience.

AP: I see; and, by way of experience, you told me before that you worked in the media world as a journalist...

EvG: I was a journalist. After the war, I earned my living as a journalist. I was a correspondent of the well-known Swiss weekly "Die Weltwoche". They had two correspondents in Italy, one did the politics from Rome, and I covered everything else.

AP: And then this experience was integrated in the evolution of your constructivist vision, it was a step towards constructivism?

EvG: Well, it was integrated in the sense that it taught me to write a little bit. It taught me to write in a way that people could understand, which was very helpful. I didn't do much constructivist thinking or constructivist propaganda in those days. Occasionally I did, when I wrote articles about science, scientific events. Then I tried to put in a constructivist view but...

AP: But...I mean, for example you considered the role of reality when you worked as a journalist or you were aware that you were constructing your reality?

EvG: I was aware of constructing a particular view of reality and trying to express it as clearly as possible.

AP: So you already were aware that you were offering a certain point of view, a certain perspective, and so you were aware...

EvG: Well...no, I was always aware that I was offering my view of reality.

AP: Yes, this awareness is rooted in your childhood as you told me because when you were a kid, you grew up in several different languages. And you say that's the reason you became aware of constructivism...

EvG: That's where I first became aware of the fact that certain things, are not the same, when you talk about them in English, as they are when you talk about them in German. There are very noticeable differences. And it's the same with Italian. As I was in school in the Alto Adige, for some time I played with Italian children and that is when I began to learn Italian. So I realized that they were very different worlds of words.

AP: These worlds derive from different languages so could you give me some examples of the deconstruction of differences between languages?

EvG: Well, in my book I gave quite a number of examples and it's always...it is not easy to pick them out of memory. But there is one that I remember. A friend of mine...this was long after school, in fact it was after the war...a friend of mine, who was a professor of classics and German literature, had to translate a German poem into Italian. The poem was a romantic ballad about something in Greece and it talks about the gods and it says the gods live on a high mountains where "wisps of fog kiss their cheeks". He spoke Italian very well, but he came to me, because he had a problem: how could one translate "fog" in that context? The Italian words for fog make you think of a sore throat and a cold in the nose and the notion of fog kissing your cheek as something romantic is simply inconceivable.

AP: Sure, fog is something negative.

EvG: In the Italian world it is always something negative

AP: Sure, even something dangerous.

EvG: There are thousands of examples like it. Those, if you like, are examples of connotation, because Italians and Germans can still talk about fog and mean the same thing on the autostrada. Yet the connotation is very different. But there are many other examples where the actual, the logical contents of the words is not comparable. And if you live in a world where you use both or three languages every day, you become aware of the differences. It would be difficult not to become aware of them. And then you ask as how does that work? Everybody goes on as they were describing reality, but then, when you speak other languages it is not the same reality you are describing. That is how I began to become interested in epistemology.

AP: I think there's a big difference, for example, between the expression "I like it" in English and "mi piace" in Italian, or "es gef_llt mir" in German.

EvG: Yes, you have an enormous difference when you say: "mi piace". "Piacere" is the activity of other thing, it's not yours; in English you say "I like it", and the activity that you describe is your own. Think what difference it makes if you go along the street and say "mi piace questa ragazza" as compared to "I like that girl".

AP: Yes, it sounds different.

EvG: It's a conceptual difference that hardly anyone becomes aware of.

AP: Yes, and I think that in German and in Italian it works in the same way: "dieses Mädchen gefällt mir" and "mi piace questa ragazza" are the same, while in English you have: "I like this girl".

EvG: Yes.

AP: It's intriguing.

My next question is about the future of the constructivist orientation: what kind of suggestions would you give to those young scholars who would like to follow the theoretical trend of constructivism, nowadays.

EvG: Well, I think they have to work it out for themselves. You see, one of the main principles of the constructivism is that you construct your knowledge yourself and if that has a number of implications for general knowledge and science as well. Heinz von Förster has made this very clear. The moment you begin to think that you are the author of your knowledge, you have to consider that you are responsible for it. You are responsible for what you are thinking, because it's you who's doing the thinking and you are responsible for what you have put together because it's you who's putting it all together. It's a disagreeable idea and it has serious consequences, because it makes you truly responsible for everything you do. You can no longer say "well, that's how the world is", or "sono così"; you know, that's not good enough.

AP: And in which way would students be responsible for what they do?

EvG: They are responsible because it's they who have put together, that is constructed, their knowledge. No one else could do it for them. You can suggest formulations, but you cannot transmit concepts or thoughts. Before lunch we talked about media. I think that is the difference a constructivist orientation could make apparent: the media can teach you to say things, they can give you phrases, combinations of words, but they cannot teach you the understanding of what these words mean. Very often people use words without ever having bothered to understand what they might mean.

AP: Sure, but the media also make people have opinions about items people know nothing about.

EvG: Yes, it's very easy! You treat people like parrots. You get them to repeat certain words, and the words become stimuli for certain actions. When they hear these words, they carry out the action. Like automata, without understanding. The whole of Behaviorism was based on that notion. And it did some remarkable things.

AP: So, do you think that media could be still partially analyzed through a behaviorist approach?

EvG: Well, I think much of what media attempt is based on behaviorist principles.

AP: Still nowadays?

EvG: Yes! Because the behaviorists were very successful with rats and pigeons, but they were never successful in making people understand. That's why they never achieved real learning in schools.

AP: So you mean that Behaviorism didn't work so well in schools but better in the media? And so constructivism is the opposite?

EvG: I don't say that it works better...

AP: Oh sorry, I misunderstood...

EvG: I think the media use certain behaviorist principles...

AP: ...and they work!

EvG: Ah, they do work, yes! I mean if you repeat something often then someone else is going to repeat it. It's as simply as that.

AP: Yes.

EvG: People who hear five times every evening that, for instance that, "x" is the best dishwasher, sooner or later it will have an effect on them. Whether they understand anything about dishwashers or not is irrelevant; "x" becomes a fixture for them.

AP: I see. Let's consider advertising. In Italy, in these days there is a very popular advertisement of a certain mobile phone, and this mobile phone had a very popular jingle (music).

EvG: Oh yes.

AP: Many people in Italy started to sing and to whistle this jingle which was repeated thousand of times every day. Almost everybody, including myself, maybe one day were singing or whistling along the streets. The number of people singing this jingle was extremely high, but the number of people buying that phone was extremely limited. So from this point of view how would you...

EvG: You mean it didn't work as advertising gambit.

AP: No, in the field of advertising, this is the problem, most advertisements are becoming a sort of artistic product independently from the product they promote and so people learn for example how beautiful the model is, they learn by memory the jingle and they don't buy the specific product; from this point of view it seems the stimulus was received but the reaction was not the expected one.

EvG: Well, I think that must happen quite often, but on the other hand some of those things must work with regard to the sales because otherwise they wouldn't spend the amounts of money they do spend on that. Don't you think?

AP: Yes, I think so, I agree with you, but at the same time advertising is a very good example of constructivism in practice, because people who do advertising make what they call "target analysis". It helps them to decide the kind of people who are the target of these campaigns and these people are observed according to the categories of the observer, not according to what they do. Sometimes, very often, advertising campaigns fail and they waste amounts of work. For example, people speaking among each other create more effective channels for advertising than advertising campaigns.

EvG: Yes

AP: Would you like to add something?

EvG: No, I would not. I was going to say that I'm not competent to say much about that area because I haven't had an opportunity to get into it. The person who I think has and who knows all about constructivism is Siegfried J.Schmidt. He published a number of things which deal exactly with that question of advertising and the construction of knowledge. You should look at those, they're published in German.

AP: Sure, I will look at his books of course. What do you think about the diffusion of constructivism today in Italy, in Germany and in the U.S.?

EvG: Well...look, I can only give you my own very subjective view, and the view is based largely on how much mail I get, what sort of questions I get, what kind of invitations I get if you will, so it's very personal and I'm not the only constructivist, so I don't know how characteristic this would be of the others. I can only repeat that Germany and Austria are the only places where constructivism is taken seriously as a philosophical orientation. In Italy, I think it is discussed quite a lot, and people are interested in it, but the most interest I have found is in the area of psychotherapy and of education. I don't know, you're the first media person I come across in Italy, I don't know any others.

AP: I am proud and worried for this at the same time...

EvG: I don't know Umberto Eco or what he thinks of constructivism. Umberto Eco knew all about Ceccato because he came to the Centro di Cibernetica. When I was there, this was in the late fifties or early sixties, he came as a very young man and was not very likeable. He thought he knew everything. But I forgave him when I read "Il nome della rosa" which I think is a wonderful book. So you should ask him what he thinks of constructivism, he must have heard the name at least, by now. I think that would be very interesting.

AP: Please let's talk about your experience, so you said in the German speaking world it was very well considered and still it is considered. In Italy...

EvG: I think in Italy there's quite a number of people who are seriously interested in it. From my personal knowledge, there are people in psychotherapy and there are people in education and then there is the group, who are the heirs and the pupils of Ceccato in Milan, who are propagating constructivism too in their own way. In this country (USA, ndr), it's much less general: well, this is a large country so you can't really compare it to the others, there's a lot of talk about constructivism in education, in educational research and specifically in mathematics education and, recently, the last five or six years, also in science education. But as I said, I do not believe there's a single department of philosophy here where constructivism has been mentioned or would be mentioned.

AP: I see, and what about Spain? Do you know?

EvG: I don't know. In Portugal there is a Piaget institute which is very interested in constructivism and does a lot of things in schools. I have been there several times and they're very active. In Spain I do not know. I know that in Barcelona there are some people who are interested in constructivism.

AP: Thank you very much and I sincerely wish constructivism will become a more and more popular epistemology.