RADICAL CONSTRUCTIVISM & POLITICAL SCIENCE
From: ALEXANDER PAQUEE firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Professor Glasersfeld,
we are studying political sciences and got to know ‘radical
constructivism’ in a relatively early stage of our studies. Despite having read a fairly large amount of ‘radical
constructivist’ literature we are still grappling with some problems which are of great importance for us. The
following questions contain some of the problems on which we would like to hear your opinion. We want to apologize
beforehand because of the length of our e-mail, but since we have no access to scholars familiar with radical
constructivism we address our questions to you. We embed our questions in short outline in order to enable you to
detect whether we grasped the arguments correctly.
1. The fundamental problem refers to the notion of ‘science’.
You accept Maturana’s notion of ‘science’ defined as the four steps constituting the process of validating an
explanation (Glasersfeld 1995: 117). This is an empirical definition as opposed to Popper’s normative one, who
decrees criteria for science. Maturana gained his definition by observing the natural scientist’s actions.
However, he then extends these criteria, claiming that the four steps constitute the scientific method in general
and you agree with him (Glasersfeld 1987: 423). This is the point where our problems crop up. ‘Social scientists’
often adopt a different understanding of science. E.g. they either assert the necessity of the inclusion of norms in
the process of ‘research’; or they make certain epistemological assumptions (marxists or feminists for instance
). Accordingly, these approaches are not covered by Maturana’s definition. If we include them into our observation
what scientist are actually doing we will not be able to define science in the way Maturana does it. If on the other
hand, we exclude them from the community of scientific observers, we ourselves can do this only due to a certain
normative criterion (which we do not want to do). Do you see any solution for this dilemma. Or is there any flaw in
our outline of the problem?
2. Maturana’s four steps of validation do not have any
content before they are applied to explain a certain phenomenon. Maturana says, that ‘when two scientists do not
coincide in their statements or explanations, it means that they belong to different consensual communities’
(Maturana 1988: 35). Does this not give rise to the problem that the decision whether an explanation can be
considered ‘scientific’ is rather due to the plausibility of the mechanism proposed to generate this phenomenon
under consideration and not to the application of the four criteria of validation per se? Otherwise it could be
possible to propose a mechanism containing metaphysical elements to explain a phenomenon. This also relates to the
question to which extent an explanatory mechanism is allowed to contain the possibility or necessity of
interpretation; i.e. how deterministic must the mechanism be? In other words: We think that the acceptance of
Maturana’s formal criterion of validation is only the necessary but not the sufficient condition of classifying an
explanation as scientific.
3. Maturana declines the term ‘falsification’ and claims
that it presupposes the assumption of an external reality (Maturana 1988: 35; 1998: 340) . You, on the other hand,
accept the possibility of falsification in the sense of a negative feedback loop. You seem to equate a successful
falsification with the case if one cannot generate an observed phenomenon by a proposed mechanism. Do you have an
explanation why Maturana rejects the term?
4. Do you consider mechanisms as scientific which generate an
observed phenomenon only with a certain probability (‘statistical laws’)?
5. In the moment we are working on a concept of ‘democracy’
allowing an strictly empirical definition in contrast to the predominantly normative notion employed in the
so-called ‘scientific’ discussion in political sciences. The mechanism we propose appears to meet Maturana’s
criteria of science. Nonetheless we are not sure, whether our procedure really is a mechanism of validation in the
sense of Maturana, because we cannot observe the phenomenon and propose a generative mechanism to observe it again.
Rather our notion of democracy is brougth forth by the mechanism and cannot be observed without it. Do you think
there is a difference between Maturana’s concept of explanation of phenomenons and our concept of defining a term
empirically? (Similar problems emerge when attempting to find a definition for example of 'society’).
6. In Glasersfeld (1995: 117) you offer a reformulation of
Maturana’s criterion of validation of scientific explanations. We, however, have the impression that there are
important differences both between the different versions offered by Maturana and your summary. In the version
proposed in Maturana (1978) the phenomenon to be explained has actually to be brought forth by the researcher. In
contrast to this version, the one proposed in Maturana (1988), wants the researcher only to suggest an explanatory
mechanism and not to bring forth the phenomenon in question. And he asserts that in principle even ‘psychic and
spiritual phenomena’ (Maturana 1988, 38) can be explained scientifically. Besides, he substitutes the term ‘experience’
for the notion of ‘observation’. Would you agree that the version of 1978 might expose itself to the reproach of
empiricism, since it restricts the phenomena which can be tackled scientifically to those which can be observed and
brought forth by the researcher. It would exclude the explanation for instance of a phenomenon like the eclipse of
the sun, because the phenomenon cannot be reproduced by the researcher; let alone social phenomena like ‘society’
(cf. question 5).
Furthermore, we have some problems with your usage of the term ‘prediction’ (step 3) in your own reformulation.
Does it mean the researcher actually has to generate the phenomenon to be explained as in Maturana (1978); or, do
you refer to the later version (1988), i.e. to the deduction of related phenomena?
7. We are often facing the problem of norms (for example in
the context of decision- making). Norms can obviously not be deduced from observations. Yet, our question is: Does
radical constructivism offer any explanation how we generate and modify norms, which lead our judgements and
8. Even though you demonstrate how our concept of numbers can
be derived from certain patterns of perception, mathematics is not subject to empirical tests. Our question
therefore is, whether you consider mathematics or logic to be sciences. To put it more broadly: Up to which degree
of abstraction do you consider phenomena or concepts as empirical and therefore belonging to empirical sciences?
Glasersfeld, Ernst von 1987: Siegener Gespraeche ueber
Radikalen Konstruktivismus, in: Schmidt, Siegfried J. (ed.): Der Diskurs des Radikalen Konstruktivismus, Frankfurt
a.M.: Suhrkamp, 401-440.
Glasersfeld, Ernst von 1995: Radical Constructivism. A Way of
Knowing and Learning, London: The Falmer Press.
Maturana 1978: Biology of Language: the Epistemology of
Reality, in: Miller, G. A../Lenneberg, Elizabeth (eds.): Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought. Essays in
honour of Eric H. Lenneberg, New York, N.Y.: Academic Press, 27-63.
Maturana, Humberto R. 1988: Reality: The Search for
Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument, in: The Irish Journal of Psychology 9: 1, 25-82.
With all respect
Rolf Nichelmann (email@example.com)
Alexander Paqueé (firstname.lastname@example.org)
TU Darmstadt, Institut fuer Politkwissenschaft
Dear Messrs. Paqueé and Nichelmann,
Thank you for your questions. They are many, but as you have
read a good bit of constructivism, I hope that brief answers will be sufficient. If they are not, don’t hesitate
to ask again.
1. Maturana mentions conditions to govern observation in his
first point and in the fourth. These are "norms" scientists have agreed on. There is no reason why they
should be the same in all branches of science; they concern observation and, presumably, methods of categorizing,
representing, and processing observational "data". Whether YOU consider the constraints and the models
built on the resulting observations to be "science", depends on how you evaluate the viability of these
models. What "epistemological assumptions" a scientist makes, is his/her affair (or funeral).
2. Maturana’s four points are a description of method, not
a validation of results. If you are able to repeat someone’s observations and get compatible "data", you
can say, he/she "is doing science". The models he/she constructs on the basis of these "data"
will have to function not only as "explanation" but also for prediction. This, I think, is where
astrologers fall short. As such, the assumption that the stars influence a person’s ontogeny is no more
metaphysical than gravity, but the predictions based on it are, in my view, ambiguous at best.
3. I cannot speak for Maturana. I don’t like the term
"falsification" either. I prefer "viability" or "non-viability" because this requires
tests in the experiential world and is always relative to the goals chosen.
4. All induction is probabilistic - and induction is all we
have to establish regularities in our experience.
5. As I understand Maturana, the "hypothetical
mechanism" in his point 2 is always an invented "model". Charles Peirce’s notion of
"abduction" throws some light on the process of invention or "intuition". I cannot say anything
about your "generative mechanism" because I don’t know what you are proposing. (re "society":
I think I have answered this question earlier on the web?)
6. As I don’t always understand Maturana, I am in no
position to evaluate what he says. At the moment I am not aware of his explanation of "psychic or spiritual
phenomena). I disagree with what you say about eclipses. The phenomenon CAN be reproduced by researchers, because
the stated conditions of observation contain temporal indications which are calculated on the basis of an accepted
model. Prediction has to be understood as the indication of conditions under which the phenomenon can be constructed
7. I’m sure there are many kinds of "norms". In
the context of "science" they cannot be deduced from first observations but from whether or not what was
developed on the basis of these observations turns out to be viable or not.
8. I would say that my definition of empirical is much the
same as Locke’s, Berkeley’s, and Hume’s, namely anything based on experience - and experience includes
thinking as much as perceiving. I therefore would ask what is a science that is not empirical? I think I have always
avoided the term "empirical sciences". The operations that generate the concept of number are MENTAL
operations triggered originally by perceptual material and then made autonomous by reflection. Of course you can
call mathematics a "science", but this hides the fact that mathematics does not require observation, it
takes place in the abstract realm of reflection, thinking about thinking. I think this goes for classical logic,
too; but Spencer Brown’s calculus of distinctions may include more.
That’s enough for today. Thank you for your interest and
Ernst von Glasersfeld