Are philosophers’ actions realist or constructivist
Cite as: Abriszewski K. (2017) Are philosophers’ actions realist or constructivist. In: Kanzian C., Kletzl S., Mitterer J. & Neges K. (eds.) Realism – relativism – constructivism. De Gruyter, Berlin: 3–15. Available at https://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/archive/4199
In my article, I propose to discuss constructivism and realism in terms of actions instead of doing that in a usual way, in terms of theories, philosophers or general positions. To enable this, I offer two conceptual tools. First, I use modified model of four types of knowledge introduced by Andrzej Zybertowicz. It approaches any knowledge-building process as a cultural game, and recognizes reproduction, discovery, redefinition, and design of a new game. Second, I use Stanislaw Lem’s model of three types of geniuses. I illustrate my approach briefly using examples from Plato, Spinoza and Berkeley.
Key words: Constructivism, realism, cultural theory, actions, knowledge.
1 Who Constructs What Nowadays?
This apparently innocent question seems to be out of place when asked in presence of philosophers. Almost surely they will not recognise it as addressed to them. And when that is determined, they will inevitably shake off any responsibility. In other words, it is always others (Others) who construct, and never ‘we’. ‘We’ will never admit: “Yes, constructing X is what we excel at.” At best, ‘we’ will offer constructing this or that reasoning on a particular topic. More likely, constructing will appear in the way of reproach: ‘construct this or that’ – that is what a realist may say to a constructivist in fervour of discussion.
While the introductive question is looming in the background, I would like to ponder what philosophers may actually construct or may have constructed in the past. However, in order to take up these considerations, I must make some adjustments to our – philosophical – ways of speaking about constructing and constructivism. That is, to a certain degree I am going to enter the undefined area of discussion about realism and constructivism, but I would also like to introduce a perspective different from the dominant ones.
For the purposes of this text, I would like to adopt a very simple and general way of attributing either stance to specific statements or theories. In the vein of the tradition of George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By I am going to identify them by the prevalent kind of metaphors on which they are based (see Lakoff/Johnson 2003).
The realist stance(s) most often employ(s) the metaphor of reflection, which was thoroughly and scrupulously revealed by Richard Rorty in his classic work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Rorty 1981). Traditionally, this genre of thought includes all epistemological stances that seek some kind of correspondence between the world (states of affairs, beings etc.) and language (propositions, claims, or – more traditionally – ideas). The constructivist approach is in turn aptly characterised by industrial metaphors of fabricating, producing, manufacturing or the aforementioned constructing. A different question is what exactly, how and by what kind of agents it is done. Radically simplified as this approach is, it nevertheless seems to grasp a certain academic convention of writing papers, conducting discussions and polemics, formulating critique and building lines of defence.
But what do we usually talk about using those labels? I dare suppose that the scope is limited: we like labelling philosophers or, more generally, scholars, by saying e.g. “Ernst von Glasersfeld was a constructivist,” “Aristotle was a realist,” etc. We are not going to hesitate to describe theories as realist or constructivist ones. For example, the latter category is likely to contain all those that we deem structurally similar to Kantian epistemology with its phenomena and things-in-themselves. In turn, realist theories will be those arguing for bridging the two in the vein of the aforementioned reflection metaphor. At last we can define the two in more detail and speak of realist and constructivist positions. This is where the cases of attributing realist and constructivist labels finish. Hence we have people, theories and positions.
For the purposes of our considerations, I would like to extend that three- entry list and attempt to also describe actions as realist and constructivist. Do we sometimes happen to treat philosophers’ work as actions of realist or constructivist nature? I claim that it is far less important what one claims to be doing, or how one describes herself – as a realist or a constructivist; it is far more important what one is doing. This kind of assessment needs a good measure, though, that is, a good theory that would allow to interpret philosophical actions with the use of the two categories in question. Let us then proceed to analytic tools.
2 Tool No. 1: the Model of the Four Kinds of Knowledge-Building Processes
The first of the proposed tools is the model of the four kinds of knowledge-building processes introduced in Przemoc i poznanie (Violence and Knowledge) by Andrzej Zybertowicz, who recognises those processes as different types of cultural games (Zybertowicz 1995, 127 ff). The main advantage of this tool for us depends on embracing different epistemologies (realist, constructivist) by identifying them as elements of particular types of cultural games. If we overlook its certain flaws resulting from the author’s attachment to seeing constructing processes in terms of language, this model offers quite clear a thinking scheme, letting us articulate various knowledge-building processes in categories of culture theory. What is more, it allows us to easily switch from epistemological questions (methods of acquiring knowledge, representation of the world) to ontological (reshaping parts of the world).
Let us scrutinise those four types then.
This is the first and simplest kind of knowledge-building process in Zybertowicz’s model. (Zybertowicz 1995, 128 f). It includes all the practices in which individuals absorb ready-made knowledge, undergo socialisation within the framework of stabilised cultural reality, enter the area of games whose rules they internalise in order to join them. Zybertowicz describes this scope of learning as follows:
An individual learns the culturally produced world, stratified into ready-to-use categories. This world contains, as its integral component, definitions of situations that are in force there: words and meaning attributed to them. An individual is learning categories firmly established in the social practice network and in culturally regulated perception. He or she absorbs certain content of culture. (Zybertowicz 1995, 128)
He also points at the fact that within this type of learning the individual experiences reaching the truth awaiting her, which, according to the model, is related uniquely to how stabilised the area of knowledge being reproduced is. Consequently, we can say that the individual is learning to reproduce particular practices, and as a result, the reproduced content keeps up to circulate. Zybertowicz also stresses the significance of ‘contexts established and rendered objective by institutions’ in which the individual operates (Zybertowicz 1995, 128). The individual experiences a ‘collision’ with reality: the degree of stabilisation makes reality very resistant to non-standard manipulation. In this context let us think about students who produce an incorrect solution of an equation at physics classes, wrongly locate the capital of Austria on the map or mistakenly quote the definition of Kant’s categorical imperative. No doubt that these areas of culture owe their stability not only to lasting institutions and situation definitions, stressed by the author, but more than anything to perpetuation through things and practices (institutions may be construed as combinations of things and practices of sorts). Therefore learning by reproducing is taking part in re-presentation (of events, phenomena, things etc.) We might say that reproduction is a significant element in the circulation of various elements of culture and contributes to stabilising them, by minimising changes (distortion) in consecutive representations. Speaking in terms of Josef Mitterer’s nondualistic philosophy, reproduction is exercise in repeating stabilised transitions from descriptions so far to descriptions from now on (Mitterer 1992, 2001).
Reproduction is the least interesting kind of knowledge-building process. Nothing new emerges here. The whole game is about repeating, as faithfully as possible, something that has already existed in culture. It is a trite observation that for philosophers knowledge reproduced this way is not an interesting subject, although it is what widespread examples refer to (the cat is on the mat, it is raining, snow is white etc.), which must be considered erroneous in view of what the following models are distinguished for. Reproduction is by no means a model process for other types of knowledge-building processes, or for knowledge in general. Zybertowicz, after Anna Palubicka, puts forward a thesis that positivist epistemology is a philosophical theory of knowledge reduced to reproduction (Palubicka 1977, Zybertowicz 1995, 129).
The second type is discovering: Zybertowicz speaks about “discovering the content of pre-existing cultural games” (Zybertowicz 1995, 129 ff). We encounter discovering wherever we have to do with a relatively stable area of public life which still has not gained its epistemological representation. We already have an experience but we still do not have its description – we have a certain kind of practices but we are not able to speak about it yet, we have phenomena but we cannot formulate their theory etc. This is how Zybertowicz puts it:
Knowledge-building processes of this kind depend on attributing concepts to states of affairs that have already been appointed (pre-formed) by the matrices of our culture / practice. In other words, discovering is reaching truths for which the space has already been established but which have not yet been articulated in a particular culture. (Zybertowicz 1995, 130)
In discovering it is important that we still have to do with a stabilised area of culture, although it has not yet created a sufficient reflection mechanism (to use Anthony Giddens’s term, see Giddens 1990). Here is an example: books con-sidered part of philosophical canon (works of Aristotle, Kant, Spinoza and others) have existed for many years (decades, centuries), but it takes feminists to stumble upon the idea of looking up what the classics say about women and putting it together instead of habitual omitting the topic as insignificant for the main course of thought (see for example Freeland 1998, Schott 1997, Gatens 2009).
It seems that learning by discovering is a very heterogeneous category. It is a function of former stabilisation and recognition of a given area of culture. Hence there may exist well stabilised and quite well known areas, which expect to be subjected to relatively standard research procedures. There may also be equally stabilised areas but so far little examined, whose exploration (discovering) is to prove greater a challenge and supposedly more fruitful. This type of knowledge- building processes may also be treated as realist, as its essence is mapping an area which is already there and whose boundaries are well defined.
2.3 Redefining Games
Whereas discovering gave us an image of the most frequent kind of knowledge- building practices that introduce new elements, redefining takes us to an utterly new level. To put it in the most general way, if a particular cultural game is played by a certain set of pre-defined rules (explicit or not), then the process of redefining infringes those rules, diverts the course of the whole game (Zybertowicz 1995, 141ff).
If the former two types operated in a stabilised area, here we begin to take into account alternative images of a specified domain, it ceases to be a homogeneous, or relatively homogeneous, field, in which epistemological objectives are clear beforehand, one knows what is important and what is trivial, which is worth pursuing and what is uninteresting or even does not belong to the field of interest. Here knowledge-building activities not only add new elements simply by filling blank spaces, applying colours to white patches, but they shape a new discipline, prove that the game is about something else than it has been believed, there is a different prize at stake, or the rules are in fact different. Or all of the above. If we recall the familiar figure of Janus introduced by Latour in Science in Action redefining will stand on the side of Janus’s young face, for example when the young face asks what ‘efficiency’ is, whereas the old face strives to build a possibly efficient machine (see Latour 1987).
Although the author of Przemoc i poznanie draws attention to institutional mechanisms and the role of authority and violence in knowledge-building, as well as that of different definitions of situation, here I would like to reshape and extend his model by practice and materiality. Let us note that if work in the redefining mode disturbs the environment (a complex assemblage of things and material practices), then this mode of knowledge production requires different forms of activity than reproducing or discovering, as it destabilises and stabilises again. Whereas a researcher-discoverer can focus on uncontroversial methodology to bring new results, a redefining researcher must struggle to legitimise dismantling the well-worn practices, and for recognition of the new practices. The former refers to knowledge hiding in the field, while the latter elaborates complex diplomatic strategies of diminishing the merit of those with a strong position in the field without them noticing. Alternatively, she might develop another skill: winning over an army of allies to topple the old authorities.
2.4 Designing New Areas of Experience
Unfortunately, Zybertowicz’s description of the last two types is much scarcer and vaguer than that of reproduction and discovering. However, we can cope with that by applying the previously proposed criterion of stability and destabilising the environment where the knowledge-building processes occur.
Designing takes place not only in unstable situations (ontology). In this case even epistemological categories used by researchers or other individuals are subject to change. Redefinition can only be applied to an established system of concepts or ideas, even though it is meant to change along with the order which they referred to. The field of research can be redefined but its name and, in many cases, also the general description (now reinterpreted) remains. In designing there are no fixed points of this kind: explorers can neither find support in stability of the environment where they operate, nor in stability of epistemological categories. Both are yet to be formed.
It may be expected that the greatest achievements of mind are related to designing as a model form of innovation. This is in stark contrast with standard examples used in epistemology, which refer to reproduction practices (white snow, cat on the mat and so on). We now see the yawning gap: two degrees of instability, ontological instability (of the environment) and cognitive instability (of notions or ideas).
The model of four types of knowledge-building processes supplemented with my amendment introduces a relatively simple scheme: reproduction and discovering, essentially based on mapping, have a realist character. Redefining and designing, as processes involving destabilising the environment, participate in constructing a new collective order. If we prove capable of analysing philosophers’ actions in such categories, we will be able to determine whether their ac-tions are realist or constructivist. Nevertheless, I would also like to introduce another, additional analytic tool.
3 Tool No.2: Lem’s Geniuses, 3 Types
The other analytical tool is the typology of geniuses proposed by Stanislaw Lem in one of his reviews of non-existent books (Lem 1974). I am going to link his remarks with cultural theory, more strongly than he does himself. While his distinction will not let us tell realist actions from constructivist ones, as does the model of the four types of knowledge, nevertheless it will allow us to do some specifications, important in our context.
Let us begin with a certain metaphor of culture that facilitates presenting Lem’s approach. Imagine culture as a river flowing through time, while the riverbed and the water are made of cultural forms, or games. Some of them are long-lasting and therefore cover long distances (or periods of time) and some are short-lived. To make culture ‘flow’, none of those forms can ‘stand still’, they must be perpetually reproduced in its inhabitants’ practices. Similarly, to a lesser or greater extent it is necessary to invent new forms. Introducing various forms of this kind may be illustrated as choosing one or another riverbed by the river.
This general image, quite accurately reflecting a certain group of cultural models (Smith 2001, 2f), is ready to host Lem’s geniuses. The third category of those, ‘simple and common geniuses’ as he calls them (Lem 1974, 90), are those at the forefront of the river. New cultural games that they invent mark the time horizon. They lead the culture and it follows them. That is why Lem says that they often earn money and fame (Lem 1974, 90). However, their ‘weakness’ depends on not trespassing the horizon of time.
The second kind of geniuses, as it is easy to figure out, is similar except they walk several miles ahead of the river’s front. They design cultural forms that do not fit in today’s riverbed, but in that of ten, twenty or fifty years from now. Among others, because they are too difficult or unintelligible for their contemporaries. Those are usually bound to fail, Lem writes that they starve, live in shelters, are deported or stoned. Their later recognition is treated as their posthumous victory. They are eventually commemorated in monuments and streets are named after them (Lem 1974, 90).
What is curious, there are two possible interpretations of what they do: the realist one and the constructivist one, at least in a way. Following the first lead, these geniuses predict the future shape of culture, basing on its present state, but their imagination is too powerful for their contemporaries and no one is able to follow them. The other interpretation says that predicting is a wrong term. Geniuses of the second category design specific new forms of culture that are later swept by the river, but it takes time to happen. That is, the present culture cannot incorporate those forms yet, but when their designs come into being, the river course gravitates towards them.
Finally, there are also geniuses of the first category. They are not those further ahead of the river’s front compared to the second category. A completely different thing is going on here. They design certain possible forms of culture, or cultural games, but they are never to be absorbed by its course. They dig a riverbed that the river is never going to flow through. Lem says that no one knows these geniuses and never will, neither living nor dead (Lem 1974, 90f). Their truths are so unheard of that nobody is going to understand them, nobody will remember them. The further culture proceeds, the further away a first category genius departs from reality, as he or she has been out of it right from the beginning and the distance only grows with time.
Let us use our tools for three selected philosophers and their actions.
4 Example of Philosophers’ Actions: Plato
As the first example I am going to use Plato. Let us remind, though, that we are supposed to categorise actions and not theories, or researchers, hence we have to ask “What did Plato do.” Therefore the default approach, describing Plato as the author of particular theories, that should be analysed in their own right, will not suffice.
There is, though, a certain tradition of construing Plato, surfacing in communication research rather than in philosophical mainstream, that can help us. This tradition, namely the orality and literacy studies, especially Eric Havelock’s groundbreaking work (Havelock 1963, 1986), sees Plato as a very important figure. However, this is not because of his philosophical theories’ significance in the tradition of the discipline, but because Plato stands at the historic moment of Greek oral culture’s transformation into (partially) written one (see Olson 1994). Numerous traits indicate it, a few of them extraordinarily characteristic: Plato’s preceptor, Socrates, did not leave any written work after him, but he could read and is undoubtedly an example of literate mind. Plato, his student, wrote texts being records of spoken language, i.e. dialogues. What is more, Plato’s seventh letter and research tradition related to the so-called unwritten science, enhance this image, arguing that from Plato’s point of view key knowledge was transmitted orally; the philosopher remained distrustful to writing as a medium of knowledge.
The crucial element is Plato’s resentment towards poets. Generations of researchers pondered what on earth poets did to deserve this peculiar loathing by the author of Phaedrus. Here is where we reach Havelock’s answer. This scholar says that poets of ancient Greece were not intellectuals creating rhymed or unrhymed verses, which are subsequently published in volumes read at meetings attended mainly by other poets. According to Havelock, Plato’s poets constituted a key element in the mechanism of cultural reproduction: in oral culture human body is the only vessel for the whole accumulated knowledge: its actions and habits, mind, muscle memory etc. (Havelock 1963). A relatively complex culture, like that of ancient Greece, had already produced complex and broad resources of knowledge, and the only way to store them was in the bodies of subsequent generations. For efficiency of such cultural reproduction it does not suffice to force youths to learn all important information by heart, as knowledge does not work like that in oral culture. It remains concrete and contextual (Ong 2002). Hence the actual mechanism of reproduction could rather have resembled a cross between a rock concert and a religious celebration: the participants were seduced, or almost hypnotised, experienced deep emotional involvement, their bodies moved rhythmically to the sung verses, amplifying the message and its memorisation, they identified with protagonists of the songs listened to. That is why Plato was so upset by poets confusing people’s minds.
It was not poets’ fault, though, not any particular flaw of their personalities. If any, it was a trait of oral culture. The war that Plato declared on poets in his Republic acquires a due meaning which explains what his protagonist, Socrates, describes there. As we all know, he envisages a state where a particular emphasis is going to be put on extensive education, designed up to the smallest detail and encompassing many spheres of life. In the perspective offered by Havelock, Plato designs cultural reproduction for literate minds, which is meant to overcome oral culture (Havelock 1963).
How does it situate Plato in our criteria? As we can see, the author of Symposium does not reproduce old cultural games, because they are what he fights against, and he does not discover their content. We can discuss whether he only redefines the pre-existing game of cultural reproduction or he designs an utterly new game along with its correspondent mode of cultural reproduction. I would opt for the latter version. However, it does not matter much in view of a more general question: whether Plato’s actions are realist at this stage, or constructivist. The answer is clear: Plato acts in a constructivist way.
If we resort to Lem’s typology of geniuses, in Plato we will effortlessly recognise a genius of the second category, who designs future culture forms. In other aspects the Greek thinker might have proceeded with the front of the river, but with his sketch of long-distance education, he clearly went ahead of his time.
To conclude: Plato’s analysed actions are constructivist, and as a genius of the second kind he designs states of culture that are to be only fully brought about by his heirs in the form of many years’ mass education based on school textbooks. We have the philosopher, we have the action and we also know what he is constructing. We are then able to determine who constructs what.
5 Example of Philosophers’ Actions: Spinoza
Spinoza provides the second example of philosophical action I am going to discuss. More accurately, I am going to examine a certain strand of his philosophy that focuses on emotions. This time, though, let us reverse the order and ask first what kind of genius Spinoza was. This task will be helped by cognitive scientist Antonio Damasio, who wrote in his Looking for Spinoza:
Spinoza dealt with the subjects that preoccupy me most as a scientist – the nature of emotions and feelings and the relation of mind to body – and those same subjects have preoccupied many other thinkers of the past. To my eyes, however, he seemed to have prefigured solutions that researchers are now offering on a number of these issues. That was surprising.
[…] Spinoza had described a functional arrangement that modem science is revealing as fact: Living organisms are designed with an ability to react emotionally to different objects and events. The reaction is followed by some pattern of feeling and a variation of pleasure or pain is necessary component of feeling. (Damasio 2003, 11)
Damasio hugely simplifies our task. His remarks obviously imply that Spinoza should be considered a genius of the second category, as it was with Plato. What is more, we can estimate his advantage over the main stream of culture to be more than three hundred years, as this is how many separate his work from the research Damasio refers to.
We are left with the question which of the four types of knowledge Spinoza’s theory of emotions belongs to. In my opinion the matter is ambiguous. Less trouble seems to be presented by the realist interpretation of dealing with a discovery: Spinoza takes part in a cultural game of experiencing emotions, strives to grasp its rules in the categories of his philosophy and recognises them far better than other contemporaneous thinkers. An analogical investigation of this area will only be possible, as we know from Damasio, three hundred years later and with the use of different methods of research (of previously outlined areas of the world).
However, we could consider an alternative constructivist interpretation. What if we have to do with an attempt at redefining the emotion game (as part of ev‑eryday life), known to Spinoza’s contemporaries, but using new concepts developed by the philosopher?
6 Example of Philosophers’ Actions: Berkeley
Finally, I would like to recall a third example: George Berkeley. If I tried again to embrace the problem in one quotation that would be the following fragment of his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge:
Those Men who frame general Rules from the Phenomena, and afterwards derive the Phenomena from those Rules, seem to consider Signs rather than Causes. (Berkeley 2002, § CVIII)
This sentence appears in both editions published during Berkeley’s life (from 1710 and 1734), but the later version lacks a fragment where a natural scientist is called a grammarian, and investigating nature described as grammar. Berkeley also refers to ‘reading the Nature’s language’.
At the first glance, the fragment above could be treated as an insignificant remark expressed in a metaphoric way. I would like to propose a different interpretation, though: in this fragment, including the part later omitted, Berkeley draws consequences from his communicational ontology, whereby experience of all the world is based on ideas which God sends to people, like a matrix transmitting to human brains ordered electric impulses that create the image of late twentieth-century reality in the famous film He tries to redefine the study of nature – more precisely, the emerging modern science – replacing causal categories with semiotic ones. The reason is obviously Berkeley’s specific ontology, in which recognising the existence of matter entails skepticism, and consequently, atheism. Matter functioning according the logic of causes and effects does not need God. Hence, from Berkeley’s point of view, a Cartesian interpretation of triumphant science is a recipe for, as he put it, ‘Atheism and Irreligion’.
If we agree for this interpretation, placing Berkeley inside the previously proposed scheme will not pose any problem. We can at least see his efforts leading to redefine (the third kind of knowledge) the quotidian in the categories of religion and communication (as a constant exchange of ideas with God). This redefinition also encompasses scientific research. We might even dare to seek cases of designing new areas of experience, as in Berkeley’s famous experiment, when he tried to almost hang himself to discover how the ideas we experience change at the moment of death. The experiment almost took a fatal turn.
We know, however, that Berkeley’s efforts did not bring long-term effect. Thinking of science in causal categories proved victorious, and imagining the world in communication categories had to wait for philosophically more complex ideas of German transcendentalism or for contemporary science fiction. The proposed cultural games did not take root. Therefore Berkeley makes an interesting example of a first-category genius, in Lem’s terms, that is, someone who intellectually departed so far from the course of the cultural river that the river does not have the chance to incorporate him and drifts still further apart. This is the case at least in the subject we consider, because not all of the Irishman’s concepts were equally unheard of and a significant part of them found their way into the history of philosophy. Although, the forms that he introduced became far less absorbed by it than those of two other empiricists from the British Isles, Locke and Hume.
7 Summary: Philosophers as Significant Constructors
The review of the three above examples with the use of the proposed analytic tools brought interesting results. We obtained constructivist actions of a second-category genius (Plato), second-category genius’s realist actions (Spinoza) and constructivist actions of a first-category genius (Berkeley). Most importantly, though, we managed to shift the focus from philosophers themselves or their self-description, to their actions. Seemingly removed from the world in the abstract game of creating philosophical theories, some of them prove to have largely influenced the shape of the world surrounding them. Their interventions were sometimes efficient and sometimes not. What matters, however, from the proposed perspective, philosophers’ work may have played an important role in constructing significant parts of our culture.
English translation by Maciej SmoczyEiski
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