| Von Glasersfeld's answers - May II 2006  |

 
 
 


QUESTION:
 
Dear professor Von Glasersfeld,
 
What is the relation between radical constructivism and
postmodernism? I think your opinion that our knowledge is
subjectively constructed may be considered postmodernist, but, on
the other hand, you save yourself from radical relativism proposing
viability as a criterion for "truth".
 
Closely related with the concept of viability is your acceptance
that there are restrictions to our actions, and so, to our
constructions. Nevertheless, you deny the existence of an outer
ontic world. I think, however, that our experience that there is an outer
world comes precisely from our experience of restrictions, so in some way
to accept there are restrictions is to accept there is an independent
outside. I'll explain now what I am thinking.
 
I have the metaphorical image of a plaster cast. Its final shape is the
resultant of all the restrictions that the original object (a human face,
for example) opposes to the free flow of the plaster. Plaster doesn't
"know" what material is made of the original face, its ontic reality, but
plaster "knows" there is a face shape out there. From the internal point
of view of the plaster, we can even deny there is an external object at
all and define the face shape, not as a copy of something external but as
a limit. I use here the word limit similarly as it is used in maths. A
limit is an object that is constructed indirectly through the
approximations to it, even if the object itself does not exist
previously.
 
So, maybe we can define the outer world as the limit of all our
possible viable constructions?

This limit would exist only if our viable constructions converge to
something. I am thinking again the concepts of convergence and divergence
in their mathematical sense. Hence, our constructions tend to a limit if
it is possible to merge any different viable constructions into a new
synthetical construction that absorbs the old ones into a more
comprehensive and accurate one.
 
It seems that classical sciences as Physics are convergent because
all new ideas and new empirical data can be assimilated to
reconstruct a best model of the world. On the other hand, some
sciences as Psychology seem to be divergent in the sense that they
are increasingly fragmenting in hundreds of mutually incompatible
schools of thinking. First case would put constructivism closer to
classical realism, second closer to postmodern relativism.
 
What do you think, our viable constructions are convergent or divergent?
 
Best regards
 
Pedro P. Rivas Soriano
Spain

 

ANSWER:
Dear Mr. Soriano,
 
I didn't know that "postmodernism" was so homogeneous a movement
that all of it could be said 100% relativist. I accepted the term
because I thought it referred to the anti-traditionalist quality of RC.
 
You clearly have read more comments on my writings than the writings
themselves. It is a popular fiction that I "deny reality". I have never
said or written anything of the sort. I merely reiterate that we have no
access to it and no idea what "existence" might mean outside the domain
of our experience.
 
Your metaphor of the plaster cast is quite ingenious, but the
plaster has no "point of view". We may have one, but we have no
"ontic" knowledge of what may have constrained it. If you say it was the
object we used to make the cast, well that is no less our construct than
the table we bump into when we want to sit down. The fact that objects
resist our movements and those of plaster is part of the experiential
reality we have constructed on the basis of experience and with concepts
and relations derived from experience and not from ontology.
 
You may, indeed, refer to the "outer" world as ONE limit of all our
possible viable constructions, but there is also the limit of our ability
to construct, And, more importantly, viability is not an absolute, it
always depends on the goals we happen to have chosen.
 

Best wishes,

Ernst von Glasersfeld
 

 

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