Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

Growing up Constructivist: Languages and Thoughtful People

What is radical constructivism? It is an unconventional approach to the problems of knowledge and knowing. It starts from the assumption that knowledge, no matter how it be defined, is in the heads of persons, and that the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience. What we make of experience constitutes the only world we consciously live in. It can be sorted into many kinds, such as things, self, others, and so on. But all kinds of experience are essentially subjective, and though I may find reasons to believe that my experience may not be unlike yours, I have no way of knowing that it is the same. The experience and interpretation of language are no exception.

Taken seriously, this is a profoundly shocking view. Some critics say that the emphasis on subjectivity is tantamount to solipsism (the view that nothing exists outside peoples’ heads), because, they seem to think, it implies that individuals are free to construct whatever realities they like; others claim that the constructivist approach is absurd, because it disregards the role of society and social interaction in the development of an individual’s knowledge. Both objections are unwarranted, and the later sections of this book will present formal arguments to demonstrate it.

I have mentioned the feature of subjectivity here at the outset, because I believe that the best way of providing an introduction to radical constructivism is to tell how I, as an individual subject, came to embrace it as a general orientation.

The beginning of this story, inevitably, has to do with my life and the roots of my dissatisfaction with traditional theories of knowledge. It will be a chronicle of gathering ideas from people I met and authors I read, none of whom, I suspect, would wholly agree with how I interpreted them and built up my model. Hence I want to preface my account with two explicit warnings.

The first is that everything expressed in this book is simply this author’s view. It is an attempt to explain a way of thinking and makes no claim to describe an independent reality. That is why I prefer to call it an approach to or a theory of knowing. Though I have used them in the past, I now try to avoid the terms ‘epistemology’ or ‘theory of knowledge’ for constructivism,

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