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Constructivism is a perspective in philosophy that views all of our knowledge as "constructed", under the assumption that it does not necessarily reflect any external "transcendent" realities; it is contingent on convention, human perception, and social experience.
Constructivism criticizes essentialism, whether it is in the form of medieval realism, classical rationalism, or empiricism.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Constructionism and constructivism are often used interchangeably. It is believed by constructivists that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender are socially constructed (Hegel, Garns, and Marx were among the first to suggest such an ambitious expansion of social determinism).[How to reference and link to summary or text]
The expression "Constructivist epistemology" was first used by Jean Piaget, 1967, with plural form in the famous article from the "Encyclopédie de la Pléiade" Logique et Connaissance scientifique (Logic and Scientific knowledge), an important text for epistemology. He refers directly to the mathematician Brouwer and his radical constructivism.
Constructivism find its roots through :
- Greek philosophers as Heraclitus (Everything flows, nothing stands still), Protagoras (Man is the measure of all things), Aristotle.
- After the Renaissance and the enlightenment, with the phenomenology and the event, Kant gives a decisive contradiction to Cartesians’ epistemology that has grown since Descartes despite Giambattista Vico calls in "La scienza nuova" (the new science) in 1708 reminding that "the norm of the truth is to have made it".
- XXth century, Gaston Bachelard, who is known for his physics psychoanalysis and the definition of an "epistemologic obstacle" that can disturb a changing of scientific paradigm as the one that occurred between classical mechanics and Einstein’s relativism, opens the teleological way with "The meditation on the object takes the form of the project". In the following famous saying, he insist on the question that come first when searching a theory, before summarizing "nothing is given, all is constructed" : "And, irrespective of what one might assume, in the life of a science, problems do not arise by themselves. It is precisely this that marks out a problem as being of the true scientific spirit: all knowledge is in response to a question. If there no were question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself. Nothing is given. All is constructed.", Gaston Bachelard (La formation de l'esprit scientifique, 1934). While quantum’s mechanics is starting to grow, Gaston Bachelard makes a call for a new science in "Le Nouvel Esprit scientifique" (The new scientific spirit).
- XXth century again, French philosopher Paul Valéry reminds the importance of representations and action : "We have always sought explanations when it was only representations that we could seek to invent", "My hand feels touched as well as it touches; reality says this, and nothing more".
- This link with action, that could be call a "philosophy of action" was well represented by Spanish poet Antonio Machado : Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.
- Ludwik Fleck establishes scientific constructivism by introducing the notions of thought collective (Denkkollektiv), and thought style (Denkstil), through which the evolution of science is much more understandable, because the research objects can be described in terms of the assumptions (thought style) that are shared for practical but also inherently social reasons, or just because any thought collective tends to preserve itself. These notions have been drawn upon by Thomas Kuhn.
- Norbert Wiener gives another defense of teleology in 1943 "Behavior, intention and teleology" and is one of those who created cybernetics.
- Jean Piaget, after the creation in 1955 of the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva, first uses the expression "constructivists epistemologies" (see above). According to Ernst von Glasersfeld, Jean Piaget is "the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing" (in An Exposition of Constructivism: Why Some Like it Radical, 1990) and "the most prolific constructivist in our century" (in Aspects of Radical Constructivism, 1996).
- Herbert Simon called « The sciences of the artificial » these new sciences (cybernetics, cognitive sciences, decision and organisation sciences) that, because of the abstraction of their object (information, communication, decision), cannot match with the classical epistemology and its experimental method and refutability.
- Gregory Bateson and his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972).
- Heinz von Foerster, invited by Jean Piaget, presented "Objects: takens for (Eigen-) behaviour" in 1976 in Geneva at a Genetic Epistemology Symposium, a text that will become a reference for constructivist epistemology.
- Paul Watzlawick, who supervised in 1984 the publication of Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? (Contributions to constructivism).
- Ernst von Glasersfeld, who has promoted since the end of the 70s radical constructivism (see below).
- Edgar Morin and his book La Méthode (1977-2004, six volumes).
- Mioara Mugur-Schächter who is also a quantum mechanics specialist.
- Jean-Louis Le Moigne for his encyclopedic work on constructivist epistemology and his General Systems theory (see "Le Moigne's Defense of Constructivism" by Ernst von Glasersfeld).
Constructivism's concepts and ideas
The common thread between all forms of constructivism is that they do not focus on an ontological reality, but instead on the constructed reality.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Indeed, a basic presupposition of constructivism is that Reality-As-It-Is-In-Itself (Ontological Reality) is utterly incoherent as a concept, since there is no way to verify how one has finally reached a definitive notion of Reality. One must already have Reality in mind--that is, one must already know what Reality consists of--in order to confirm when one has at last "hit bottom". Richard Rorty has justly said, therefore, that all claims to Realism can be reduced to intuition (Consequences of Pragmatism, chs. 9, 11). At bottom, then, it seems that the Realist/Anti-Realist debate can be reduced to a conflict of intuitions: "It seems to us that..." "Well, it seems to us that...". A realist would not like to construe the argument in this way, and would say that someone is misled, that one of these groups seems correctly, and another group perceives incorrectly. Again, though, constructivists will complain that there is no way to confirm one way or another, since the goal of inquiry (Reality) must be assumed to be understood at the outset. The Realist hope, in a constructivist understanding, is simply an arbitrary freezing of the infinite regress of circularity that plagues human reasoning which vainly hopes to validate itself with a secure foundation.
Famously, this rather relativist theory is seen by some to contradict itself as a true affirmation: because this view also is "constructed," that is, made and not found, built by human hands rather than discovered in Nature or Reality. Consistent constructivists, however, will reply to this tu quoque (your theory, too!) critique with a rejoinder of their own: bien sur! (of course our theory, too!). It is an obvious and foolish claim for a constructivist to play a realist with regard to his or her own perspective. It is the basic claim of constructivism which allows one to reject altogether claims to universalism, realism, or objective truth. Consistent constructivists will not make any of these "hard" claims for their views, for they believe that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things, that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world. This notion is deeply indebted to Darwinian theory, as it is claimed by constructivists that human understanding, as the product of Natural Selection, can be said to provide no more "true" understanding of the world as it is in itself than is absolutely necessary for human survival. Naturally, one will ask constructivists why they accept Darwin as a foundational thesis, if there are no "truer" explanations of the world than any other. Constructivists will reply that Darwinism epistemology undercuts itself as a transparent window onto the world, and reveals only its plausibility as an account. Insofar as someone desires a naturalistic account of the world that makes sense of a variety of data, Darwinism is the best (indeed, virtually only) explanatory schema that meets the requirements of modern scientific inquiry. Modern scientific inquiry, however, constructivists wish to point out, is itself subject to the contingencies of history, culture, language, and the tenuousness of the human intellect. For many, though, this self-reflexive anti-epistemology will not prove useful, desirable or very sturdy as an explanatory framework. An excellent account of the Self-Refutation Charge is given in Barbara Herrnstein Smith's Belief & Resistance, chapter 5 (pp. 73-87; "Unloading the Self-Refutation Charge").
Constructivism proposes new definitions for knowledge and truth that forms a new paradigm, based on inter-subjectivity instead of the classical objectivity and viability instead of truth. The constructivist point of view is pragmatic as Vico said: "the truth is to have made it".
In this paradigm, "sciences of the artificial" (see Herbert Simon) as cybernetics, automatics or decision theory, management and engineering sciences can justify their teaching and have a space in the academy as "real sciences".
Constructivism and sciences
Social constructivism in sociology
- Main article: Social constructionism
One version of social constructivism contends that categories of knowledge and reality are actively created by social relationships and interactions. These interactions also alter the way in which scientific episteme is organized.
Social activity presupposes human beings inhabiting shared forms of life, and in the case of social construction, utilizing semiotic resources (meaning making and meaning signifying) with reference to social structures and institutions. Several traditions use the term Social Constructivism: psychology (after Lev Vygotsky), sociology (after Durkheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, themselves influenced by Alfred Schütz), sociology of knowledge (David Bloor), sociology of mathematics (Sal Restivo), philosophy of mathematics (Paul Ernest). Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy can be seen as a foundation for Social Constructivism, with its key theoretical concepts of language games embedded in forms of life.
Lev Vygotsky's social constructivist principles can be applied in new collaborative tools such as blogs, wikis, and podcasts.
Constructivism and psychology
- Main article: Constructivism (psychological school)
Constructivism and education
- Main article: Constructivism (learning theory)
Constructivism and postmodernism
For some, social constructionism can be seen as a source of the postmodern movement, and has been influential in the field of cultural studies. Some have gone so far as to attribute the rise of cultural studies (the cultural turn) to social constructionism.
Cultural constructivism asserts that knowledge and reality are a product of their cultural context, meaning that two independent cultures will likely form different observational methodologies. For instance, Western cultures generally rely on objects for scientific descriptions; by contrast, Native American culture relies on events for descriptions. These are two distinct ways of constructing reality based on external artifacts.
In Communal constructivism students and teachers are not simply engaged in developing their own information. Rather, they are actively involved in creating knowledge that will benefit other students. "In this model students will not simply pass through a course like water through a sieve but instead leave their own imprint in the development of the course, their school or university, and ideally the discipline." Holmes, B., Tangney, B., Fitzgibbon, A., Savage, T, & Mehan, S. (2001). [PDF]
Radical constructivismErnst von Glasersfeld is a prominent proponent of radical constructivism, which claims that knowledge is the self-organized cognitive process of the human brain. That is, the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself, and since knowledge is a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data, it is impossible to know the extent to which knowledge reflects an ontological reality.
A series of articles published in the journal Critical Inquiry (1991) served as a manifesto for the movement of critical constructivism in various disciplines, including the natural sciences. Not only truth and reality, but also "evidence", "document", "experience", "fact", "proof", and other central categories of empirical research (in physics, biology, statistics, history, law, etc.) reveal their contingent character as a social and ideological construction. Thus, a "realist" or "rationalist" interpretation is subjected to criticism.
While recognizing the constructedness of reality, many representatives of this critical paradigm deny philosophy the task of the creative construction of reality. They eagerly criticize realistic judgments, but they do not move beyond analytic procedures based on subtle tautologies. They thus remain in the critical paradigm and consider it to be a standard of scientific philosophy per se.
- Verum esse ipsum factum, Giambattista Vico
- "the norm of the truth is to have made it," or
- "the true is precisely what is made"
- Verum et factum convertuntur, Giambattista Vico
- "the true and the made are convertible"
- Et, quoi qu’on en dise, dans la vie scientifique, les problèmes ne se posent pas d’eux-mêmes. C’est précisément ce sens du problème qui donne la marque du véritable esprit scientifique. Pour un esprit scientifique, toute connaissance est une réponse à une question. S’il n’y a pas eu de question, il ne peut y avoir de connaissance scientifique. Rien ne va de soi. Rien n’est donné. Tout est construit, Gaston Bachelard (La formation de l'esprit scientifique, 1934)
- "And, irrespective of what one might assume, in the life of a science, problems do not arise by themselves. It is precisely this that marks out a problem as being of the true scientific spirit: all knowledge is in response to a question. If there were no question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself. Nothing is given. All is constructed."
- On a toujours cherché des explications quand c’était des représentations qu’on pouvait seulement essayer d’inventer, Paul Valéry
- "We have always sought explanations when it was only representations that we could seek to invent"
- Ma main se sent touchée aussi bien qu’elle touche ; réel veut dire cela, et rien de plus, Paul Valéry
- "My hand feels touched as well as it touches; that's reality, and nothing more"
- Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself, Jean Piaget in "La construction du réel chez l'enfant" (1937)
- Anti-racist math
- Deutsche Physik
- Collective Simulations
- Constructivism (learning theory)
- Constructivism in international relations
- Family therapy
- Personal construct psychology
- Science and technology studies
- Social constructionism
- Systems theory