Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

Constructing Agents: The Self and Others1

For some 2500 years the western world has manifested an overwhelming tendency to think of knowledge as the representation of a world outside and independent of the knower. The representation was supposed to reflect at least part of the world’s structure and the principles according to which it works. Although the picture might not yet be quite perfect, it was thought to be perfectible in principle. As in the case of a portrait, the ‘goodness’ of a piece of knowledge was to be judged by how well it corresponded to the ‘real’ thing. For reasons laid out in the preceding chapters, this way of thinking is not viable from the constructivist point of view. But if one denies that knowledge must in some way correspond to an objective world, what should it be related to and what could give it its value?

This is a serious question, because if we were to say that there is no such relation, we should find ourselves caught in solipsism, according to which the mind, and the mind alone, creates the world. As an explanatory model the doctrine of solipsism is not very useful. In fact, it is not a model at all and it explains nothing. Solipsism is a metaphysical statement about the nature of the world and leaves to others the task of explaining how the individual sets about to create its world. If an autonomous ‘will’ is invoked (e.g., Schopenhauer, 1819), some powerful ‘wild cards’ have to be borrowed from mysticism to achieve a semblance of coherence. In practice, solipsism is refuted daily by the experience that the world is hardly ever what we would like it to be.

Constructivism, as I explained earlier, has nothing to say about what may or may not exist. It is intended as a theory of knowing, not as a theory of being. Nevertheless it does not maintain that we can successfully construct anything we might want. Two principles are crucial in this regard.

The first is that cognitive organisms do not acquire knowledge just for the fun of it. They develop attitudes towards their experience because they like certain parts of it and dislike others.

…[H]uman beings never remain passive but constantly pursue some aim or react to perturbations by active compensations consisting in regulations. It follows from this that every action proceeds from a

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