| Von Glasersfeld's answers - February 2004  |


Dear professor von Glasersfeld
I'm an Italian philosophy student.
1) I' ll be grateful if you write about fundamental aspects that you think connetc your thought with Francisco Varela's epistemology, biology and cognitive science. Moreover, what do you think about last Varela's research program called by himself neurophenomenology? From autopoiesis days to neurophenomenology: how do you describe this intellectual course? 
2) You wrote a very hard to find article i.e. "von Glasersfeld and F. Varela (1977) Problems of Knowledge and cognizing organism" (citied in Varela's "Principles of Biological Autonomy") which work could perhaps make me clear some relations among Varela and You: so, where can I find that? Moreover, have you other bibliographical indications in this sense?
I want you know that to comunicate with a philosopher as you is a great honour for me (even with my bad English!).
Pier Paolo Tarsi
Dear Mr. Tarsi,

As most of my records were burned in  a fire about two years ago, I cannot send you the text  of my paper with Varela that you are looking for. It was published in Lisbon and you might try to write to
Antonio Oliveira Cruz, Instituto Piaget, Av.Joao Paulo II, Lote 544-2, 1900 Lisboa, Portugal. Antonio was the director of the journal and they may have back copies. If you are lucky, send me a xerox copy of the paper!

My relation with Varela cooled shortly after we published that paper because I disapproved of the way he ignored his debt to Maturana. His work in neurobiology was first class, but I do not think much of his philosophical excursions into phenomenology la Heidegger.

Your English is not bad at all, but if you find it easier to read Italian, write to <ivanpaolo.bolognesi@tin.it> who has recently translated papers of mine and would probably send you copies if you asked for them.

Best wishes,

Ernst von Glasersfeld



Dear Prof. von Glasersfeld,
Studying cybernetics I was strucked by the fact that you worked in the
Biological Computer Laboratory with von Foerster. Do you think that
Cybernetics, and particularly "second order" Cybernetics had a strong
impact on the philosophical origins of Radical constructivism? And if
yes, can you explain which were the issues that stimulated you more in

I have a secondary question too: have you ever been in contact with the
cybernetics newsletter called Artorga, edited by Oliver Wells (the
communications circulated between the late '50s and the 70s)? The
monthly newsletter was the communication organ of a cybernetics research
group, whose scientific committee was composed by: von Foerster, Gordon
Pask, Stafford Beer, Ross Ashby and Oliver Wells, himself. Did you
receive the newsletter? Were you a member of the group? Did you discuss
with von Foerster, or with the other members of the scientific committee
about it?

Thanks in advance for your kind attention

Best Regards

Teresa Numerico
Contract Prof. University of Bologna
Dear Ms. Numerico,

I'm sorry to disappoint you. I never worked at the Bilogical Computer Laboratory. I was friends for many years with both Gordon Pask and Heinz von Foerster. Reminiscences (also about the growth of radical constructivism) with Heinz were recently published in Italian at Odradek (Via delle Canapiglie, 112 -  00169 Roma) under the titlle "Come ci si inventa".
As for Artorga I was not part of it because my connection with HvF and GP only began in 1970. By that time my constructivism was well developed thanks to having sttudied Vico, Berkeley, Vaihinger,  and Kant - and the teachings of Silvio Ceccato who was my friend and mentor from 1946 until  1962.

Best wishes,

Ernst von Glasersfeld

Dear Mr. Ernst von Glasersfeld!

Recently I a was introduced to Radical Constructivism and wondered if I
could be referred to a link to the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute
University of Massachusetts. The reason for it is that I am interested in
methods of thinking and related research in North America. I have an
impression that Radical Constructivism might function as a meta-language to
facilitate addressing areas that seem stalled in their progress due to lack
of some thinking tools and patterns. My best bet would be getting acquainted
to examples of how some specific RC notions and views are applied to handle
problems of societal interaction, such as economy, politics, sociology,
education, etc.
I will appreciate any help,
Yours sincerely,
Michael Chumakin

Dear Mr. Chumakin,

SRRI  works mainly on physics and mathematics education and you can contact  the web site < www.umass.edu/srri/ > for papers to download.
Appplications of RC to education are  described in a bool I edited : Radical constructivism in mathematics education.  Dordrecht: Kluwer. 1991 and also in  In L.P.Steffe & P.W.Thompson (Eds.), Radical constructivism in action - Building on the pioneering work of Ernst von Glasersfeld. London: Routledge/Falmer, 2000. , politics, etc. you might ask Vincent Kenny  (  
kenny@icp-italia.it  ).

Best wishes,

Ernst von Glasersfeld


Dear Prof. Glasersfeld,

my question concerns the possibility of defining society in a radical
constructivist perspective. If knowledge is only subjectively constructed
and if there is not also an intersubjective social construction (which would
assume that there is an environment outside the human being where you have
other human beings as partners of interaction), how can you define society?
The only possibility would then be to say that society means that one
subjectively assumes that there are others with which one interacts. But:
* interaction means going beyond pure subjective construction, it means that
one refers to a social and material environment, so you can't talk about
interaction in pure speculative and subjective terms
* if society is only subjectively constructed by one human individual, then
you reduce society to the individual, a reductionist position that
contradicts the very concept of the social and hence doesn't suffice as
*if you take an agnostic position and say we can't decide whether there is
something like a society and hence we can't define it, sociology won't be
possible and you deny its foundations

How do you define society and make sociology possible from a radical
constructivist position? I think it's only possible with a modest
constructivism where you stress that cognitive construction or autopoiesis
is always based on an environment and assume that the social environment of
construction is very important. How do you deal with this?

Christian Fuchs


Dear Mr. Fuchs,

Yours is an excellent question and one could write a whole book to answer it, which I am not going to attempt here and probably will never get round to doing. I shall just give you some fundamental hints.

a) with regard to their status as experiences, "others" (that is other people) are constructed in much the same way you construct things such as chairs you sit on, apples you eat, mosquitos that sting you, and cars you drive. All these things you assemble by generalizing abstractions from your subjective experience (as you interact with them) and adapting the composites to fit what you believe "others" have abstracted from their experience. (Had you grown up on a desert island, the things you would have got used to dealing with might be so different that you could not communicate about them when, forty years later, people accidentally find you).

b) The way your car reacts to what you do to it leads you to attribute certain properties to it and after a few months you think you know its "personality"; needless to say, it may still surprise you. Your interactions with "others" are usually even more varied and more complicated than those with your car, but the way you abstract from the interactions and generalize properties is essentially the same.

c) By the time you have constructed a dozen or more other people in your experiential field, you are in a position to look for similarities among them and to sort them into groups. That is the beginning of sociology. Essentially it is no different from botany, where you construct plant experiences, establish similarities and differences among them, and begin to create classes whose members have specific characteristics.

d) The thing to remember is that our constructs are not arbitrary or random, except when we are dreaming. They are always constrained by what the things let us do in our interactions with them and by how we have come to categorize their reactions.

     Society is, indeed, a subjective construct; but once, thanks to interactions with "others", it has achieved a certain amount of "intersubjectivity", we can begin to talk about it as though it "existed" and "objectively" study what we believe it is.

     As I said, this is far from the complete story, but it may be enough to start you thinking in a certain direction. Then, who knows, maybe you'll write a constructivist sociology? Anyway, let me know how you get on.

Best wishes,

Ernst von Glasersfeld



Home | Ecology of Mind | Mind-ing Ecology | Co-ordination Page | Search 
Bateson | Kelly | Maturana | von Glasersfeld | Laing | Antipsychiatry | Links
Ecology in Politics | Eco-logising Psychology | Sustainability | Environment & Nature