Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

The Construction of Concepts1

As I described at the beginning of this book, my interest in theories of knowledge was triggered by the use of different languages and the early discovery that each was tied to a different experiential world. At the same time it seemed that they all functioned in much the same way, and I began to look for a model for the stuff that we call ‘meaning’.

Sensorimotor knowledge manifests itself in actions, but conceptual knowledge is expressed in symbols. When we come to investigate this knowledge, the symbols are mostly linguistic. Therefore, semantic analysis, i.e., the analysis of meaning, has to be an important facet of any theory of knowing.

The relation between conceptual structures and their linguistic expressions was also at the heart of the Italian Operationist School, and Ceccato’s method for the analysis of meaning came to play an important role in the development of the constructivist theory. I called it ‘conceptual semantics’ and continued to use it during my work on machine translation. It is an unconventional method and differs sharply from the common practice in linguistics. It does not try to find appropriate verbal definitions of words, as one might find in a dictionary, but instead, aims at providing ‘recipes’ that specify the mental operations that are required to obtain a particular concept. It was a sophisticated application of Bridgman’s idea of operational definition. One might be tempted to speak of an analysis of mental behaviour but, given current usage, this would be counterproductive.

In the United States, where I have been living for the last quarter of a century, psychology has chosen to define itself as the science of behaviour—and behaviour, as the followers of Watson and Skinner preached with devastating success, is what we can observe an organism do. The founders of behaviourism were adamant in their contention that there is nothing beyond the observable that could be of interest to science. 2 Focusing exclusively on behaviour and defining behaviour as observable responses, makes it easy to avoid dealing with any intelligent organism’s more complex capabilities. In the long run, it provides merely partial models of the behaviour of pigeons and rats.

Piaget, too, described psychology as the science of behaviour (see Chapter 3), but it was for a different reason. Behaviour was important to Piaget, because an observer can often infer from it what might be going on in another person’s mind, and the functioning of the mind was his primary interest.

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