Ernst von Glasersfeld’s Answers - June-July 1997

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Question 1: How is shared social reality possible?

There are two ways of ‘sharing’. Awareness of the conceptual difference between them is crucial in answering the question. It is one thing, to share a car, and quite another to share a bottle of wine. In the first case, two or more individuals are using one and the same car; in the second case, none of the wine drunk by one person can be drunk by another [see my Radical Constructivism, 1995, p.48].

Radical constructivism deals with experience and whatever concepts individuals abstract from it; it does not deal with ‘being’ or what ‘exists’. Social reality is a concept which individuals have to abstract from their experiences with the ‘others’ they have come to construct; and concepts reside in individual heads, not in an ‘objective’ society.

As an individual, I may conclude on the basis of various interactions with you, that what I have constructed as ‘society’ seems compatible with what you refer to when you use that term. This conjecture may prompt me to say that we are sharing the concept - but this does not mean that we are sharing it the way we might share the use of a car.




Question 2: How does one deal with the charge of solipsism?

Solipsism is the extreme idealist view that there is no world beyond our mind. Constructivists must be unwavering agnostics with regard to ‘existence’ because, like Berkeley, they cannot conceive of what that word should mean outside the domain of experience. Whatever may lie beyond experience is inaccessible to human reason. But this is no denial of ontological reality; nor does it deny that artists and mystics may intuitively participate in an ulterior ‘reality’. Constructivism merely holds that such a reality cannot be known rationally. The construction of our experiential reality is never ad lib, but subject to constraints - and in many cases we are unable to decide whether the constraints we meet are due to inconsistencies in our construction or constitute impediments of the unknowable.




Question 3: Why is Piaget’s constructivism not seen as ‘naive’ rather than ‘radical’ [given that commentators criticise his discussion of the relationships between ‘cognition’ and ‘language’ as falling short of being a comprehensive account of the genesis of a languaging observer’s self-awareness]?

The criticism of the anonymous ‘commentators’ seems to spring from an interpretation of Maturana’s theory, and Maturana has made it clear that he does not like the term ‘constructivism’ with or without the qualification ‘radical’. Indeed, both Piaget and myself do not quite agree with Maturana’s view of language, its genesis, and the contention that it precedes cognition.

I follow Piaget’s idea that language begins to develop when the cognitive organism begins deliberately to re-present to itself experiences that are remembered but not available at the moment. According to this view, conceptual construction, which is part of cognition, has to begin before language.

Part of this difference has no doubt to do with how one defines ‘language’. Piaget sees language as a specialization of a preceding symbolic activity that is purely subjective. Maturana, I believe, includes this in his use of the term ‘language’.

As for ‘consciousness’ or ‘self-awareness’, I consider it mysterious or, as Hans Vaihinger would say, as an heuristic fiction.

There is no question in my mind that Piaget’s theory is ‘radical’, because he has stated innumerable times that knowledge does not have the purpose of ‘representing’ an external world, but serves the organism’s adaptation. Consequently, it is not assessed on the basis of its ‘truth’, but on its experiential viability.




Question 4 If we construct our own unique reality and act upon that reality then social settings must be the product of many constructed realities rather than one socially constructed reality. What would a Radical Constructivist rather than social constructionist social science look like? From:


Answer -

Social constructionists [Ken Gergen & Co.] agree with the radicals that reality cannot be known, but they speak of social reality as though it were something outside the heads of people, and they could nevertheless know it [for my view, see answer to question 1]. - Social science, to me, is constructed like other sciences: I contemplate experiences of interactions [with others], abstract regularities from them, formulate these as best I can in words and sentences which I then present to others. If they agree, I conclude that they have interpreted my words in a way that to them seemed compatible with their own abstractions. Where there is no agreement, we can discuss, explain, negotiate, and run experiments, in the hope of finding mutually compatible abstractions and formulations. After a while, we may call the body of statements we have managed to agree on, ‘social science’.




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