Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Reflection and Abstraction1

Shortly before the turn of the century, John Dewey wrote: ‘As adults we are constantly deceiving ourselves in regard to the nature and genesis of our mental experiences’ (McLellan and Dewey, 1908, p. 27). Much of his work aimed at exposing the deceptions. But the trend in psychology moved in another direction. What came was the behaviourist era. One of its remarkable features is that so many leaders and followers of that creed could claim to be empiricists, cite John Locke as their forefather, and get away with it. Had they read no further than the first chapter of Book II of his major work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,2 they would have found some startling things. Right at the beginning there is a caution that might have made them a little more circumspect:

The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own object. (John Locke, 1690, Introduction, par.1)

Then, at the beginning of Book II, Locke makes it very clear that he does not intend to do without the ‘mind’ and its power of ‘reflection’. Paragraph 2 has the heading: ‘All Ideas come from Sensation or Reflection’, and paragraph 4 is entitled ‘The operations of our Minds’. It is there that Locke explains what he means by these terms:

By reflection then, in the following part of this discourse, I would be understood to mean, that notice which the mind takes of its operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding. (Locke, 1690, Book II, Chapter I, par.4)

In our century, it was Jean Piaget who vigorously defended and expanded the notion of reflection. He lost no opportunity to distance himself from empiricists who denied the mind and its operations and wanted to reduce all knowing to a passive reception of objective sense data. Yet, he should not have found it difficult to agree with Locke’s division of ideas because it is not too different from his own division between figurative and operative

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