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Volume 1, Number 1
Date of publication: 01 November 2005

Alexander Riegler (Free University of Brussels)
Editorial.The Constructivist Challenge

Radical constructivism:
Ernst von Glasersfeld (University of Massachussetts)
Thirty Years Constructivism
Second order cybernetics:
Diederik Aerts (Free University of Brussels)
Ceci n’est pas Heinz von Foerster

Enactive cognitive science:
Kevin McGee (Linköping University)
Enactive Cognitive Science.
Part 1: Background and Research Themes

Epistemic structuring:
Herbert F. J. Müller (McGill University)
People,Tools, and Agency: Who Is the Kybernetes?

Radical constructivism:
Dewey Dykstra (Boise State University)
Against Realist Instruction.
Superficial Success Masking Catastrophic Failure and an Alternative

An interdisciplinary journal
Advisory Board DESCRIPTION
William Clancey Constructivist Foundations (CF) is an independent academic peer-reviewed e-journal
NASA Ames Research Center, USA without commercial interests. Its aim is to promote scientific foundations and
Ranulph Glanville applications of constructivist sciences, to weed out pseudoscientific claims and to
CybernEthics Research, UK base constructivist sciences on sound scientific foundations, which do not equal the
Ernst von Glasersfeld scientific method with objectivist claims. The journal is concerned with the
University of Massachusetts, USA interdisciplinary study of all forms of constructivist sciences, especially radical
Vincent Kenny
constructivism, cybersemiotics, enactive cognitive science, epistemic structuring of
Inst. of Constructivist Psychology, Italy experience, second order cybernetics, the theory of autopoietic systems, etc.
Klaus Krippendorff
University of Pennsylvania, USA AIM AND SCOPE
Humberto Maturana The basic motivation behind the journal is to make peer-reviewed constructivist
Institute Matríztica, Chile papers available to the academic audience free of charge. The “constructive”
Josef Mitterer character of the journal refers to the fact that the journal publishes actual work in
University of Klagenfurt, Austria constructivist sciences rather than work that argues for the importance or need for
Karl Müller constructivism. The journal is open to (provocative) new ideas that fall within the
Wisdom, Austria scope of constructivist approaches and encourages critical academic submissions to
Bernhard Pörksen help sharpen the position of constructivist sciences.
University of Hamburg, Germany The common denominator of constructivist approaches can be summarized as
Gebhard Rusch follows.
University of Siegen, Germany • Constructivist approaches question the Cartesian separation between objective
Siegfried J. Schmidt world and subjective experience;
University of Münster, Germany • Consequently, they demand the inclusion of the observer in scientific
Bernard Scott explanations;
Cranfield University, UK • Representationalism is rejected; knowledge is a system-related cognitive process
Sverre Sjölander
rather than a mapping of an objective world onto subjective cognitive
Linköping University, Sweden structures;
• According to constructivist approaches, it is futile to claim that knowledge
Stuart Umpleby
George Washington University, USA approaches reality; reality is brought forth by the subject rather than passively
Terry Winograd
Stanford University, USA
• Constructivist approaches entertain an agnostic relationship with reality, which
is considered beyond our cognitive horizon; any reference to it should be
Editor-In-Chief refrained from;
• Therefore, the focus of research moves from the world that consists of matter to
Alexander Riegler
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium the world that consists of what matters;
• Constructivist approaches focus on self-referential and organizationally closed
Editorial Board systems; such systems strive for control over their inputs rather than their
Pille Bunnell
Royal Roads University, Canada • With regard to scientific explanations, constructivist approaches favor a process-
oriented approach rather than a substance-based perspective, e.g. living systems
Olaf Diettrich
Center Leo Apostel, Belgium are defined by processes whereby they constitute and maintain their own
Dewey Dykstra • Constructivist approaches emphasize the “individual as personal scientist”
Boise State University, USA
approach; sociality is defined as accommodating within the framework of social
Stefano Franchi interaction;
University of Auckland, New Zealand
• Finally, constructivist approaches ask for an open and less dogmatic approach to
Timo Honkela science in order to generate the flexibility that is needed to cope with today’s
Helsinki Univ. of Technology, Finland
scientific frontier.
Theo Hug
University of Innsbruck, Austria
Urban Kordes
Institut Jozef Stefan, Slovenia Language: Papers must be written in English. If English is a foreign language for you
Albert Müller please let the text be proofread by an English native speaker.
University of Vienna, Austria Copyright: With the exception of reprints of “classical” articles, all papers are
Herbert F. J. Müller “original work,” i.e., they must not have been published elsewhere before nor
McGill University, Montreal, Canada must they be the revised version (changes amount to less than 25% of the
Markus Peschl
original) of a published work. However, the copyright remains with the author
University of Vienna, Austria and is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Author’s guidelines at
Bernd Porr
University of Glasgow, UK Send all material to Alexander Riegler
John Stewart Important: Use “Constructivist Foundations” in the “Subject:” field.
Univ. de Technologie de Compiègne, France
Tom Ziemke For more information please visit the journal’s website at
University of Skövde, Sweden

Cover page: Painting “Knidos” by Werner Horvath, New Austrian Constructivism.

With kind permission of the artist,
conceptual constructivism

Editorial. The Constructivist Challenge

Alexander Riegler A Vrije Universiteit Brussel,
capture their behavior in neat formalisms in
Purpose: This is an attempt to define constructivism in a pluralistic way. It categorizes order to make reliable predications is ren-
constructivist work within a three-dimensional space rather than along one dimension only. dered impossible. It is the responsibility of the
Practical implications: The interdisciplinary definition makes it possible to perceive the scientist to decide these problems: “Only
rather heterogenous constructivist community as a coherent and largely consistent scien- those questions which are in principle unde-
tific effort to provide answers to demanding complex problems. Furthermore it gives cidable we can decide” (Foerster 1991/2003).
authors of Constructivist Foundation the opportunity to locate their own position within The solution to such “big problems” in sci-
the community. Conclusions: I offer a catalogue of ten points that outline the constructivist ence simply cannot be delegated to nature as
program. Each of these aspects invites authors to extensively reflect on it and to approach the monolithic “objective arbiter.” Therefore
it from their disciplinary background to do work in any of the types of investigations the pluralistic perspectives are of utmost impor-
journal covers. Key words: constructivist approaches, interdisciplinarity, dogmatism. tance when scientifically approaching phe-
nomena of organized complexity.
The present first issue of “Constructivist
What is constructivism? Consider the
following example. Suppose that we
lized (cf. the “If it ain’t broken don’t fix it” syn-
drome, Riegler 1998, 2001b), caught in the Foundations” is the attempt to provide this
take a piece of chalk and write on a blackboard momentary situational context as deter- plurality. It creates an interdisciplinary forum
“A = A.” Now we point at it and ask, “What is mined by the way we have learned to deal with for authors and readers, philosophers and
this?” We may get one of the following things. But secondly, the analogy also warns engineers, academics and practitioners, to
answers. (a) White lines on a black back- us of authoritarian attempts to think there is approach the most challenging scientific
ground; (b) An arrangement of molecules of only true solution to a whatever we identify as problems from the constructivist perspective.
chalk; (c) Three signs; (d) The law of identity. a problem. Their appeal to “reality” as the This perspective, however, is not a monolithic
Regardless whether you are an art critic, a ultimate arbiter of (scientific) disputes gives building, nor is it the philosopher’s stone.
chemist, a philosopher, or a mathematician, it rise to the belief that there exists a mind-inde- Rather, it “is a way of thinking, not a collec-
is obvious that the answer will depend on pendent reality which defines what is true and tion of facts,” as Ernst von Glasersfeld (1985/
your educational background. At first sight what is not. However, as Mitterer (1992) 1992) once said about cybernetics which is
we may find this example amusing and harm- pointed out, isn’t claiming authority by refer- one of the major roots for several contempo-
less. We all know that personal preferences ring to an external truth the attempt to make rary constructivist schools. For many it
bias the way we perceive the world. But what one’s own point of view unassailable? The two sounds unthinkable to refrain from searching
about the following example, originally analogies above should make it clear that sci- for the correct answer, for the correct solution
attributed to Danish nobel prize winner Niels ence and philosophy gain from variety and to a given problem. Unfortunately, unambig-
Bohr and retold by Humberto Maturana? A the possibility of choosing from other uous solutions work for simple systems and
teacher “who asks a student to measure the options. simply problems only. We are used to the sit-
height of a tower with the use of an altimeter, Such variety and freedom of choice has uation in Newtonian physics that deals with a
may flunk the student if he uses the length of always been a major aspect a constructivist small number of entities subject to a few
the altimeter to triangulate the tower and philosophies and sciences. Heinz von Foer- forces only. And we are used to thinking that
obtains the height of the tower through ster’s (1973/2003, p. 227) “ethical impera- such situations can be extrapolated to mas-
geometry and not through physics. The tive”: “Act always so as to increase the number sively large inhomogeneous systems. How-
teacher may say that the student does not of choices” does not only anthropo-morphize ever, as it has turned out over the last decades
know physics” (Maturana 1978, p. 42). What W. Ross Ashby’s (1956) Law of Requisite Vari- these systems of organized complexity such as
this episode suggests is twofold. Firstly, by ety which states that the variety of actions human cognition, quantum physics, life,
focusing on one particular approach only we available to a control system must be at least economy, global weather, and many more,
will quickly get caught in ignorance and as large as the variety of actions in the system evade our attempts to generate simple and
denial of other approaches that might turn to be controlled (so by having more choice clear-cut answers. These systems call for
out much more fruitful. Of course, such is the you stay in control). Foerster’s imperative is interdisciplinary approaches, for open
human psyche: functionally fixed (Duncker also a reminder to the fact that most problems inquiries that enable investigators to escape
1935/1945). Once we have found a viable in science are undecidable in principle. These the confinements of a specific discipline and
solution (such as reading the display of an are problems of “organized complexity” to become aware of aspects that are necessary
altimeter) we tend to stubbornly apply the (Weaver 1948), characterized by a “sizeable to satisfyingly solve the problem.
pattern of our solution to all other problems number of factors which are interrelated into By now it should have become obvious
as well. In other words, our thinking is cana- an organic whole” (p. 539). Any attempt to that there is no simple answer to the initial

Constructivist Foundations 2005, vol. 1, no. 1 1

conceptual constructivism

question “What is constructivism?” There are ing the need for belief in mind-independent Psychologist Ulric Neisser (1975) devel-
many constructivist “schools” as constructiv- reality. oped a theory of schemata controlled informa-
ist concepts have been developed in various The cybernetic approach has a different his- tion pickup. A cognitive schema “accepts
scientific disciplines. In order to provide an tory. Originally hired as editor of the proceed- information as it becomes available at sensory
impression of how diverse constructivist ings of the Macy-conferences on cybernetics surfaces and is changed by that information.
“schools” can be I shall sketch a few of the (cf. Pias 2003) the subject of which was “cir- It directs movements and exploratory activi-
constructivisms relevant for the journal. cular-causal and feedback mechanisms in ties that make more information available, by
biological and social systems,” it soon struck which it is further modified” (p. 55).
Heinz von Foerster that a “cybernetics of For Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noë (2001)
The plurality of observing systems” is far more interesting seeing is knowing sensorimotor dependen-
than a “cybernetics of observed systems.” His cies, and the brain is a device to extract alge-
constructivism so defined second-ordered cybernetics became braic structures between perception and
When some 30 years ago by Ernst von Glaser- the guiding paradigm of the Biological Com- action. The authors refer to the work of
sfeld started publishing on a concept he called puting Lab (BCL) he was running for many Donald MacKay (1969) on “sensorimotor
“radical constructivism” (Glasersfeld 1995; years. contingencies” and continued the work of
cf. also his recollection article in this edition) Starting from the insight that nervous sig- Paul Bach-y-Rita (1972) who pioneered with
he pioneered the philosophical-epistemologi- nals are merely electrochemical, Heinz von work on sensory substitution. In particular,
cal approach. He maintains that knowledge is Foerster formulated the Principle of Undiffer- Bach-y-Rita showed how a blind person could
not passively received but actively built up by entiated Encoding: “The response of a nerve gain some notion of sight by converting visual
the cognizing subject (first principle of radi- cell does not encode the physical nature of the camera images into tactile information, and
cal constructivism). Furthermore the func- agents that caused its response. Encoded is interpreted this as expression of brain plastic-
tion of cognition is adaptive; it serves the only ‘how much’ at this point on my body, but ity.
organization of the experiential world, not not ‘what’” (Foerster 1973/2003, p. 215). The The theory of autopoietic systems formu-
the discovery of ontological reality (second principle can be found in Maturana and lated by biologists Humberto R. Maturana
principle). He calls his version “radical” Varela’s assertion that the cognitive apparatus and Francisco J. Varela can be referred to as the
because he claims that constructivism has to is an “organizationally closed system” (see biological-neurobiological approach. Autopoi-
be applied to all levels of description. “Those biological approaches below). etic systems are a sub-class of self-organizing
who ... do not explicitly give up the notion It can be claimed that the psychological- systems which, if they exist in the physical
that our conceptual constructions can or cognitive approach started with developmen- domain, are the class of living systems. For
should in some way represent an indepen- tal psychologist Jean Piaget whose scientific them, the nervous system is a closed network
dent, ‘objective’ reality, are still caught up in conviction can be summarized in his state- of interacting neurons where any change in
the traditional theory of knowledge” (Glaser- ment “L’intelligence organise le monde en the state of relative activity of a collection of
sfeld 1991). s’organisant elle-même” (Piaget 1937/1954, neurons leads to a change in the state of rela-
Glasersfeld refers to the skeptic tradition p. 311). In his theory of cognitive develop- tive activity of other or the same collection of
in philosophy, especially to Sextus Empiricus, ment (e.g., he argued that in the beginning, a neurons. This is referred to as the “organiza-
Berkeley (Esse est percipi, i.e., to be is to be per- newborn knows little about how to cope with tional closure” of the nervous system. It can
ceived), Vico (Verum ipsum factum, i.e., the the perceptive impressions around her. Faces be argued that organizational closure repre-
truth is the same as the made), and to Hans might be funny or threatening colorful spots sents the starting point for the formal inter-
Vaihinger’s (1911/1952) as-if philosophy. For and voices unknown sounds. In fact, she pretation of radical constructivism (Riegler
Glasersfeld, skepticism points the way to the doesn’t even know that these are colors and 2001a).
insight that whatever world view we construct sounds. Only by assimilation and accommo- The work of neurophysiologist Rudolfo R.
we do not have any means of validating it. He dation the child constructs a collection of Llinás (2001) provides empirical backing. He
also quotes Jean Piaget from whom he took rules (schemata) during her ontogeny. Sche- too formulated a closed-system hypothesis:
over the idea that the child constructs his or mata serve as a point of reference when it “[The brain] is capable of doing what it does
her world by means of assimilation and comes to assimilating new experiences. If without any sensory input whatsoever” (p.
accommodation. impressions are too alien to be aligned to an 94). According to his dreaming machine-
Another philosophically oriented per- older, already assimilated experience, they are argument, we “are basically dreaming
spective is Herbert Müller’s (2000; cf. also his either not perceived at all or give rise to the machines that construct virtual models.”
article in this edition) epistemic structuring (of accommodation of those existing schemata, Neurophysiologist Gerhard Roth (Haynes
experience) approach. It assumes mental which are appropriately adjusted in order to et al. 1998) maintains that the limbic system,
structures to be tools for mastering unstruc- include the new “exotic” experience. With the unconsciously working part of the brain
tured experience. The principle of zero-deri- each of these assimilating or accommodating responsible for evaluations, is the ultimate
vation claims that reality structures are not steps the child constructs another piece of instance of volitional cognition. In their view,
derived from any given pre-structured enti- reality. Piaget’s theory has been interpreted in consciousness is just a pseudo-ruling ego. It is
ties inside or outside the subject thus obviat- a constructivist way especially by Glasersfeld. not the ego who constructs; it is constructed,

2 Constructivist Foundations
conceptual constructivism

or as Wolfgang Prinz (1997, p. 155) put it, “We tional setting or viewpoint in another frame the actual and the potential infinite (Van
do not do what we want, but we want what we which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situ- Bendegem 1999).
do.” In other words, this raises the question ation equally well or even better and thereby With Erlangen Constructivism Paul Loren-
who (or what) is responsible for the construc- changes its entire meaning” (p. 95). This zen and Wilhelm Kamlah (Kamlah & Loren-
tions that form our cognition (Riegler 2003). encourages the patients to find alternative zen 1967/1984, Lorenzen 1987) attempted a
Later on, Varela together with Evan constructions of their worldview. In other circular-free foundation of sciences and sci-
Thompson and Elenor Rosch developed words, it helps to escape canalizations I entific languages. Its basis is twofold: a pre-
another constructivist variant known as enac- referred to in the beginning. scientific vocabulary and standardized action
tivism or enactive cognitive science based on Psychologist George Kelly (1955) devel- schemata to generate objects. Later, Erlangen
key concepts such as autopoiesis, structural oped a challenging subjectivist theory, Per- Constructivism was transformed into Meth-
determinism and structural coupling. In the sonal Construct Psychology, that focuses on the odological Culturalism by Peter Janich (1996).
enactivist paradigm, experience is rooted concept of anticipation. His “man as scientist” He claims a relativism on the fact that all jus-
within the organizational autonomy of the metaphor expresses the idea that “a person’s tifications are based on pre-active and pre-
acting system and is considered fundamental processes are psychologically channelized by discursive consensuses, which are marked by
for social and cultural phenomena. As the the way in which he anticipates events” (p. 46) an already achieved cultural level. (“Alle
authors put it, it attempts to account for “how Human beings aim at a better control of their Begründungen und Rechtfertigungen finden
action can be perceptually guided in a per- world by predicting events and constructing zulässige Anfänge in präaktiven und prädis-
ceiver-dependent world” (Varela, Thomspon their reality. These constructions are con- kursiven Konsensen, die durch eine schon
& Rosch 1991, p. 173; cf. also the McGee’s sur- stantly subject to validation and subsequent erreichte Kulturhöhe ausgezeichnet sind.”)
vey in this edition). modification if necessary. As proponents of the computational
One could assume that the most “objec- The list of constructivist approaches could approach Steven Quartz (Quartz & Sejnowski
tive” of all disciplines, physics, does not con- be even further extended. For example, there 1997) and Gert Westermann (2000) could be
tribute to the constructivist spectrum. Inter- is the literature-media science approach cham- listed as well as Gary Drescher (1991) who
estingly, however, arguing from the pioned by Siegfried J. Schmidt (1987), Geb- cast Piaget into algorithms.
background of physics, Olaf Diettrich (2001) hard Rusch (1987) et al. in the 1980s in Ger- Last but not least Constructionism (Harel
developed a constructivist evolutionary episte- many. Part of the credit also goes to Wolfram & Papert 1991) as an educational philosophy
mology (or cognitive operator theory). He K. Köck who made excellent German transla- should be mentioned. It emphasizes that in
claims perceived patterns and regularities are tions of authors such as Maturana, Glasers- order to learn about abstract concepts it is
just invariants of inborn cognitive (sensory) feld, and Foerster, which triggered the great necessary to create and experiment with arti-
operators. Therefore, laws of nature are impact of radical constructivism on the facts. In this perspective, understanding and
human-specific. A different set of cognitive humanities in German-speaking countries. experience are closely related in the sense that
operators yields a different cognitive pheno- Further researchers in this area are Nancy learning is considered a process of active
type. Creatures equipped with such alterna- Spivey (1997) and Stefan Weber (2005) who knowledge construction rather than passive
tive phenotypes would be impossible to com- argues in favor of a non-dualistic media the- knowledge absorption.
municate with. Diettrich’s approach also ory as proposed by Mitterer (1992, 2001).
claims a homology between mechanisms gen- Building primarily on Maturana and Varela’s
erating mathematical terms and those gener- autopoietic theory, Niklas Luhmann (1984/ Does constructivism
ating observational ones, explaining thus why 1995) developed a system theoretical version,
mathematics is such an effective tool to which has found many followers especially in
describe the world. Germany. Ernst von Glasersfeld and Leslie Will constructivism change science? Carnap
In his quantum-physical world view, Ger- Steffe (Steffe & Gale 1995) contributed a great discussed the effect of epistemology in his
hard Grössing (2001) maintains that per- deal to implementing radical constructivism well-known thought experiment of two geog-
ceived non-classical structure of space and in educational sciences. Former BCL member raphers – a realist and an idealist – who travel
time in relativistic cases are human-specific Gordon Pask (1975) developed a constructiv- to Africa to investigate claims about an
artifact based on neurophysiological pro- ist theory of communication as applied to edu- unusual mountain. Carnap’s conclusion is
cesses. cation and extended by Bernard Scott (e.g., that the “two geographers will come to the
Paul Watzlawick’s well-known Palo-Alto Scott 2001). same result not only about the existence of the
group (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch 1974) In reaction to mathematical Platonism, mountain, but also about its other character-
for family therapy uses constructivism to mathematical constructivists such as L. E. J. istics, namely position, shape, height, etc. In
make patients solve their interpersonal prob- Brouwer, Arend Heyting (1975), and Jean all empirical questions there is unanimity…
lems. Their approach can be called psychia- Paul Van Bendegem claim that mathematical [The epistemological] divergence between
trist-therapeutic. The basic therapeutic inter- objects exist only if a method can construct the two scientists does not occur in the empir-
vention is to disrupt patterns of symptomatic them. As a consequence they oppose, for ical domain, for there is complete unanimity
interaction by “reframing” a habitual situa- example, the notion of infinity, either by so far as the empirical facts are concerned.”
tion, i.e., to “place conceptual and/or emo- denying the actual infinite or by denying both (Carnap 1928/1967, p. 334). Similarly, Hel-

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 3

conceptual constructivism

mut Schwegler (2001) argues that all science and object, and their argumentation is philosophies. Positivist Rudolf Carnap
including physics is basically a language game directed towards the object of thought. His expressed the necessity of this aspect in his
in the sense of Wittgenstein, i.e., scientists thesis says: The dualistic method of searching 1935 book saying that “we reject the thesis of
communicate via language and work via these for truth is but an argumentative technique the Reality of the physical world; but we do not
communications. But in order to play this that can turn any arbitrary opinion either true reject it as false, but as having no sense, and its
language game correctly one doesn’t need to or false. Therefore the goal of dualistic philos- Idealistic anti-thesis is subject to exactly the
adopt the constructivist world view. So, after ophies, i.e., philosophies based on the sub- same rejection. We neither assert nor deny
all, does a constructivist foundation matter? ject–object dichotomy, is to convince a public these theses, we reject the whole question.”
As Glasersfeld said, knowledge is always the audience (readers, listeners, discussion part- 6. Therefore, the focus of research moves
result of a constructive activity rather than the ners) of the truth. An example to surmount from the world that consists of matter to the
accumulation of propositional data (such as the separation is the concept of “co-enaction” world that consists of what matters. Since the
position and heights of mountains). In other (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 150) cognitive apparatus brings forth the world
words, constructivism shifts the focus of according to which “...knower and known, out of experiences, our understanding of
attention from the propositional “knowing mind and world, stand in relation to each what we are used to refer to as “reality” does
that” to the pragmatic “knowing how.” In a other through mutual specification or depen- not root in the discovery of absolute mind-
certain sense, scientists rather resemble shoe- dent coorigination.” independent structures but rather in the
makers who have to work with their given 2. As a consequence of point 1, construc- operations by which we assemble our experi-
material. In the “realist mode” shoemakers tivist approaches demand the inclusion of the ential world” (Glasersfeld 1984). Or in the
stick to the principles of shoemaking which observer in scientific explanations. Foerster words of Foerster, instead of being concerned
are believed to be true. Constructivist shoe- (quoted from Glasersfeld 1995) summarizes with “observed systems” the focus of atten-
makers, however, will more flexibly adopt the crucial point in a single statement, tion shifts to “observing systems.”
alternative approaches as for them the com- “Objectivity is the delusion that observations 7. Constructivist approaches focus on self-
mitment to a hypothetical truth is no longer could be made without an observer.” Mat- referential and organizationally closed sys-
an essential criterion (Dewey Dykstra, per- urana (1978, p. 3) made it a dictum: “Every- tems. Such systems strive for control over
sonal communication). If this analogy is cor- thing said is said by an observer to another their inputs rather than their outputs. Cogni-
rect, then one of the advantages of a construc- observer that could be him- or herself.” tive system (mind) is operationally closed. It
tivist-biased science certainly has more 3. Representationalism is rejected. Ques- interacts necessarily only with its own states
potential to come up with new solutions. tioning Wittgenstein’s correspondence theory (Maturana & Varela 1979). The nervous sys-
of representation (“in order to tell whether a tem is “a closed network of interacting neu-
picture is true or false we must compare it rons such that any change in the state of rela-
The common with reality”) induced Glasersfeld to formu- tive activity of a collection of neurons leads to
late the radical constructivist paradigm. In a change in the state of relative activity of
denominator the constructivist perspective knowledge is other or the same collection of neurons”
Let us pick up again the initial question, “What the result of an active construction process (Winograd & Flores 1986, p. 42). This is a
is constructivism?” As argued above, giving a rather than of a more or less passive represen- consequence of the neurophysiological prin-
one-dimensional answer does not only con- tational mapping from the environment of an ciple of undifferentiated encoding: “The
tradict constructivist principles, it is above all objective world onto subjective cognitive response of a nerve cell does not encode the
counterproductive for scientific and philo- structures. Therefore, knowledge is a system- physical nature of the agents that caused its
sophical endeavors. It would be difficult if not related cognitive process rather than a repre- response.” (Foerster 1973/2003, p. 293).
impossible to lump together the many inde- sentation (Peschl & Riegler 1999). Humberto Maturana (1978) suggests that we
pendent disciplinary roots and proponents of 4. According to constructivist approaches, can compare the situation of the mind with a
constructivism. However, it is possible and it is futile to claim that knowledge approaches pilot using instruments to fly the plane. All he
desirable to distill their common denomina- reality. Instead, reality is brought forth by the does is “manipulate the instruments of the
tor. From what has been said so far in this edi- subject. As Glasersfeld (1991, p.16) put it, plane according to a certain path of change in
torial but without going into further details “those who merely speak of the construction their readings” (p. 42). In other words, the
(and thereby violating the idea of a denomina- of knowledge, but do not explicitly give up the pilot doesn’t even need to look “outside.” The
tor being wide enough to cover various para- notion that our conceptual constructions can enactive cognitive science paradigm expresses
digms) I present the “constructivist program.” or should in some way represent an indepen- clearly: “...autonomous systems stand in
It encompasses the following ten aspects. dent, ‘objective’ reality, are still caught up in sharp contrast to systems whose coupling
1. Constructivist approaches question the the traditional theory of knowledge.” with the environment is specified through
Cartesian separation between objective world 5. Constructivist approaches entertain an input/output relations. ...the meaning of this
and subjective experience. As argued by Josef agnostic relationship with reality, which is or that interaction for a living system is not
Mitterer (2001), such dualistic approaches, considered beyond our cognitive horizon. Any prescribed from outside but is the result of the
being the prevailing scientific orientation, are reference to it should be refrained from. This organization and history of the system itself.”
based on the distinction between description position is not necessarily limited to skeptical (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 157)

4 Constructivist Foundations
conceptual constructivism

8. With regard to scientific explanations,

constructivist approaches favor a process-
oriented approach rather than a substance- Given the plurality of constructivist approaches it seems heretical to order them in one dimen-
based perspective. For example, following sion only. Hence Constructivist Foundations will navigate the constructivist space in three
Maturana living systems are defined by pro- dimensions.
cesses whereby they constitute and maintain
their own organization. Their structure Dimension 1: Discipline
refers to the “actual relations which hold Along this dimension we find the following disciplines.
between the components which integrate a [ biological-physiological
concrete machine in a given space” (Mat- [ cognitive-psychological
urana & Varela 1979) while their organiza- [ educational
tion defines the “dynamics of interactions [ engineering-computer scientific
and transformations” a system may undergo. [ historical
Material aspects are therefore secondary. [ philosophical-epistemological
9. Constructivist approaches emphasize [ physical
the “individual as personal scientist”
approach as their starting point is the cogni- Dimension 2: School
tive capacity of the experiencing subject. Since many scientists and philosophers have developed their respective version of constructivism
Sociality is defined as accommodating without necessarily paying much attention to historical or contemporary parallels a number of
within the framework of social interaction. labels for constructivist research have emerged.Therefore authors may align their submission to
While social interaction is not considered a Constructivist Foundation to any from the following (incomplete) list of “schools” (or paradigms).
new quality in contrast to interacting with [ constructivist evolutionary epistemology
non-living entities, its complexity is [ cybersemiotics
acknowledged. However, society is not a pri- [ enactive cognitive science (cf. McGee’s survey in this number)
ori given, not the “social precedes the per- [ epistemic structuring of experience (cf. Müller’s conceptual paper)
sonal” (Gergen 1997). Rather, “society” must [ radical constructivism (cf. Glasersfeld’s recollection article)
be conceptually analyzed. Constructivism is [ second order cybernetics (cf. Aerts’s interview with Foerster)
also rather pragmatic about “common [ theory of autopoietic systems
knowledge” such as texts. They “contain nei-
ther meaning nor knowledge – they are a Dimension 3: Types of inquiry
scaffolding on which readers can build their As different disciplines prefer different types of inquiry, submissions to Constructivist Founda-
interpretation” (Glasersfeld 1992, p. 175). tions investigations too may focus on different ways of how to use their insights. Contributions
10. Finally, constructivism asks for an will be classified according the following dimension.
open and more flexible approach to science Opinions are written from the personal perspective of constructivist researchers and philoso-
in order to generate the plasticity that is phers (and are therefore subject to editorial editing only).
needed to cope with the scientific frontier. Surveys provide an extensive overview with the goal to bracket single insights and results to
Also today’s knowledge-based society must provide a global picture.
be assessed through its ability and willing- Conceptual papers develop philosophical-argumentative support.
ness to continuously revise knowledge. Empirical studies focus on psychological, biological, physical etc. evidence.
Krohn (1997) refers to it as the society of self- Synthetic studies try to turn conceptual or empirical insights of constructivist theories into
experimentation. Luhmann (1994) defines models, simulation, or hardware devices.
knowledge as schemata that are regarded as
true but ready to be changed. Constructiv-
ism must be considered as a way to forgo the in a rather lucid and comprehensible way
dogmatism that prevents science from
The articles (being multilingual he has developed a pro-
becoming more fruitful and productive than in this edition found command of pragmatic language use)
today. and his personal account makes it easy to get
This list is deliberately painted with a big The present first edition provides a sample of a grip on his concepts even if one is meeting
brush. Rather than limit future develop- the sort of articles that will be published in them for the first time.
ments right from the onset, the list wants to upcoming editions of Constructivist Founda- The second opinion article is a voice from
give the necessary latitude to future authors tions. It starts with a recollection of Ernst von the past, an interview with Heinz von Foerster
in Constructivist Foundations to further Glasersfeld who summarizes the (personal) that he gave ten years ago at the large and
extend the constructivist program. This is history of the radical constructivist paradigm. stimulating conference “Einstein meets Mag-
the constructivist challenge, and the journal Newcomers to constructivism may find the ritte: An interdisciplinary reflection on sci-
will be one of its main champions. text particularly appealing. Glasersfeld writes ence, human action and society,” which fea-

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 5

conceptual constructivism

tured nineteen famous plenary speakers such sion of thinking by thoroughly applying con- discussion. It is the conviction of the editors
as Ilya Prigogine, Brian Arthur, Francisco structivism at all levels. As a result the author that carefully crafted conceptual, empirical
Varela, Chrisopher Langton, Julian Jaynes, claims that many “hard” problems in philos- and synthetic articles as well as comprehen-
William Calvin, Bas van Fraassen, to name ophy such as the mind–body problem may sive surveys yielding a global perspective and
but a few. The interview has never been pub- find easy solutions. The article not only intro- personal opinions of senior scientists will
lished before and is also available as audio file duces a new constructivist variation, it has contribute to turning constructivist
for download from the journal’s web page. also been shaped in a novel way. Originally approaches into a valuable ingredient of the
Like Glasersfeld’s article it serves as a histori- written as a target article for the world-wide- scientific endeavor as they provide new per-
cal document for readers who want to get the web-based discussion forum “Karl Jaspers spective, insights, and inspiration in areas
whole picture. Therefore, endnotes were Forum” at, it received such where conventional epistemologies have
added that explain the relevance of people a large number of comments (which in turn proven increasingly insufficient research
mentioned by Foerster. He survived this spurred many responses by the author) that strategies.
interview by seven years and died on 2 Octo- the author wrote a revised version that
ber 2002 in California (cf. memorial volume includes the criticism and support from the
in Riegler 2005). comments. In other words, the paper has
The third contribution is the first part of undergone “public reviewing” which served ABOUT THE AUTHOR
an extensive overview of the enactive cogni- as a sufficient criterion for publication in
tive science (ECS) approach, mainly pio- Constructivist Foundations. Also in future, Alexander Riegler obtained a Ph.D. in artifi-
neered by Francisco Varela (1946–2001). the editors of the journal intend to exploit this cial intelligence and cognitive science in
Kevin McGee is brilliant at pulling many mode as an alternative to the standard dou- 1995 from the Vienna University of Tech-
aspects together into a coherent survey of the ble-blind peer reviewing used for other nology with a dissertation on constructivist
historical and conceptual background of ECS. papers in the journal. artificial life. His research interests include
By outlining research themes he proves that The last paper in this edition is an empiri- cognitive science, philosophy of science,
ECS is a fruitful research framework for the cal study of constructivist education that has and research in biological and cognitive
future. The second part of McGee’s survey become a well-known education paradigm in complexity. He worked at the department
will appear in the next edition of Constructiv- the US. Its author Dewey Dykstra dismisses a of Theoretical Biology (University of
ist Foundations. number of allegations against constructivist Vienna), and at the department of Com-
Another type of paper published in the education and presents a new constructivist puter Science (University of Zurich). Since
journal are conceptual-philosophical articles alternative to the “elitist-realist paradigm.” 1998 he has been a research fellow at the
that provide the foundation for further theo- The selection of papers for this edition Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary
retical reflections and practical empirical or reflects the flexibility of constructivist strate- Research (Free University of Brussels). He
synthetic work. Herbert Müller’s conceptual gies. It is evident that a broad variety of topics co-organized the interdisciplinary confer-
framework of “epistemic structuring of expe- and types of paper is difficult to find in most ences “New Trends in Cognitive Science”, in
rience” is introduced and discussed in the other journals. Variety and diversity, however, 1997 on knowledge representation and in
fourth paper. It opposes traditional meta- do not mean shallowness as the reviewed 2001 on virtual reality.
physical ontology and focuses on the inver- papers show; they are distinct in their deep

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2005, vol. 1, no. 1 7

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Steffe, L. & Gale, J. (eds.) (1995) Constructiv- Varela, F. J., Thompson, E. & Rosch, E. (1991) Weber, S. (2005) Non-dualistische Medien-
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8 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

Thirty Years Radical Constructivism

Ernst von Glasersfeld A University of Massachusetts,
One cornerstone of Ceccato’s theory was
L ooking back in order to unravel how you
came to where you now think you are, is a
group of friends who worked informally and
unpaid with Silvio Ceccato at the debunking that syntax could not be understood without
step in the creation of history. It’s only a of traditional theories of language and analysis of conceptual relations and that the
beginning, because proper history requires knowledge. Ceccato, who had studied music composition of sentences involved many
several people to compare recollections and at the Conservatory in Milan but, to please more such relations than were recognized in
sort out what is compatible among them. his father, had also got a doctorate in law, traditional grammars. On the level of lan-
What I present here, is a personal account and became curious about what it was that gen- guage, most of these conceptual relations
lays no claim whatever to objectivity. It is sim- erated the appeal of musical compositions were marked by prepositions, conjunctions,
ply what I remember. that were deemed beautiful. He read all he and particles of that kind. In English, for
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I could dig up about esthetics but found no example, there are more than a hundred of
became a constructivist towards the end of satisfactory answer. He went on to read epis- these “parts of speech” and most of them are
the 1940s when I joined the interdisciplinary temology but found the accounts given of highly ambiguous with regard to the concep-
knowledge and the functioning of language tual relations they indicate. In other lan-
equally disappointing. It was only when he guages the situation is similar, but the range of
ABOUT THE AUTHOR came across Bridgman’s operationalsm that ambiguity of prepositions is different in each
Ernst von Glasersfeld was born in Munich, he saw a direction to develop his own think- language. During the ten years that I worked
1917, of Austrian parents, and grew up in ing. To define the meaning of words by in computational linguistics, the problem of
Northern Italy and Switzerland. Briefly means of other words, he realized, could translating prepositions kept turning up and
studied mathematics in Zürich and Vienna never show what meaning consists of. To continually reinforced my notion that the
and survived the 2nd World War as farmer find out, you had to uncover how it was structure of the experiential reality we live in
in Ireland. Returned to Italy in 1946, worked made, you had to analyze the operations that depends in many ways on the language we
as journalist, and collaborated until 1961 in produced it. This was tantamount to analyz- happen to grow up with. It was a simple con-
Ceccato’s Scuola Operativa Italiana (lan- ing how knowledge could be constituted. firmation of Whorf ’s contention that con-
guage analysis and machine translation). Ceccato spoke of operational awareness, cepts differ from one language to another
From 1962 director of US-sponsored deliberately leaving implicit that he was (Whorf 1956).
research project in computational linguis- focusing on the construction of knowledge.
tics. From 1970, he taught cognitive psy- The word “knowledge”, he felt, had to be
chology at the University of Georgia, USA. avoided because it tends to lead to the notion “You know, much of
Professor Emeritus, 1987. At present of representation in the sense of replica of a
Research Associate at Scientific Reasoning pre-existing reality. Knowledge could mean what you suggest has
only one thing to him: the reconstruction of
Research Institute, University of Massachu-
results of prior operations. If the reconstruc-
been said by Piaget”
setts. Dr.phil.h.c., University of Klagenfurt,
1997. – Books (among others): Wissen, tion matched them, it was true, if it didn’t it
Sprache und Wirklichkeit, Vieweg Verlag, was false. Jean Piaget coined the expression “the
Wiesbaden, 1987. Linguaggio e comunicazi- In 1955 Ceccato went to a conference in construction of reality” in the title of one of
one nel costruttivismo radicale, CLUP, Mil- London and met Colin Cherry, the communi- his fundamental books on cognitive develop-
ano, 1989. Radical Constructivism: A way of cation expert. Cherry suggested that the best ment in children (Piaget 1937). It was ironical
knowing and learning, Falmer Press, Lon- way for an unconventional theory of language that Ceccato, although vigorously opposed to
don, 1995 (German translation: Suhrkamp to make headway at that time was to apply it the Platonic notion of pre-existing eternal
Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1996; also Portu- to machine translation. Shortly after that, ideas, never came to see the importance of
guese, Korean, Italian translations.) Grenzen Ceccato founded the Center for Cybernetics cognitive development for any theory of
des Begreifens, Benteli Verlag, Bern, 1996. at Milan University and asked me to help with knowledge. When I asked him about a Piaget
Wege des Wissens, Carl Auer Verlag, writing a proposal for research on machine reference I had found, he told me not to
Heidelberg, 1997. Wie wir uns erfinden translation. The research was sponsored by an bother because Piaget was concerned with
(with H. von Foerster), Heidelberg: Carl office of the US Air Force, but lasted only for children. Consequently I did not become
Auer, 1999. (Italian translation: Rome, three years. Some time after it ended I moved acquainted with the work of the inventor of
Odradek, 2001). More than 240 paper to the United States with a small project of my constructivism in the 20th century until my
publications since 1960. own, still based on Ceccato’s theory of lan- research project in the United States was ter-
guage (Ceccato 1969). minate. Like many others it was the victim of

Constructivist Foundations 2005, vol. 1, no. 1 9

historical radical constructivism

an internal upheaval at the sponsoring Air or “uncompromising”. I chose it because at develop a concept of number (Steffe et al.
Force office. My team was adopted by the Uni- the time many developmental psychologists 1983).
versity of Georgia and I was assigned to the were mentioning Piaget’s constructivism but The Follow Through report had practi-
department of psychology. Charles Smock, without going into its epistemological impli- cally no circulation, but the papers we had
one of the few members of that large depart- cations. What they called construction published during the preparation of the book
ment who were interested in cognitive psy- seemed to refer to the fact that children and the book itself created a stir. In July 1987,
chology, very generously shared a couple of acquire adult knowledge not all at once, but in at the meeting of the International Group of
courses with me to introduce me to teaching small pieces. I did not think that this was a Psychologists in Mathematics Education
(which I had never done except on ski slopes). revelation and therefore called their approach (PME), Mimi Sinclair (long-term Piaget col-
He had spent several years at Geneva and as “trivial constructivism”. It was clearly no way laborator) and I defended constructivism
we began to talk about the problems of cogni- to gain the friendship of traditional psycholo- against two prominent figures in the field.
tion, he said to me one evening: “You know, gists but in the long run it did not do much Their attacks were so unscholarly and vicious
much of what you suggest has been said by harm. that they produced the opposite effect: they
Piaget.” So I began to read and to discover helped to establish constructivism as a valid
Piaget’s “genetic epistemology”. Fortunately basis for teaching mathematics.
Smock had nearly all the original French pub- It was clearly no way to As approach to a theory of knowing, con-
lications of the Geneva School and I could see structivism became established at the Inter-
how pervasive the notion of individual con- gain the friendship of national Conference on the Construction of
struction was in Piaget’s thinking. In the Realities that Heinz von Foerster organized
English translations I later had to use in teach-
traditional psychologists with the help of Francisco Varela in San Fran-
ing, this notion is much subdued if not elim- but in the long run it did cisco in 1978. There were very interesting pre-
inated, because most translators tended to sentations by Bateson, Goffman, Polanyi’s
assimilate everything to their conventional,
not do much harm daughter, and others, , and it’s a pity that
realist views. Varela, who collected all the texts, never got
At about that time, Heinz von Foerster round to publishing them. It was at this con-
sent me a batch of his publications. We had Smock collaborated in research with Les ference that I met Paul Watzlawick. He had
met a couple of years earlier and found that Steffe, who headed the Georgia section of the developed his own constructivist ideas start-
some of the problems we were interested in Follow Through Program for children in the ing from Schopenhauer and through his prac-
were much the same. When I read his “An first classes of elementary school. Steffe was a tice in family therapy. The problems he was
epistemology for living things” (Foerster Piagetian and his specialty was mathematics asked to solve, arose, he saw time and time
1972), it struck me as extraordinary that there education. During the first years of school, again, from the fact that the realities individ-
were three people who had come to quite sim- “math ed” is of course all arithmetic. On the ual members of a family lived in were not
ilar conclusions by very different ways: Cec- basis of Piaget’s “clinical method”, which compatible with one another. Watzlawick
cato, who had come to see the activity of included interviewing children about what asked me to expand and translate the talk I
knowing rather like a composer’s work of cre- they were thinking, rather than merely had given so that he could use it as the intro-
ating chords and then tunes by combining observing what they were doing, Steffe was ductory piece to “Die erfundene Wirklich-
notes in sequences that could be specified by beginning to build hypothetical models of keit” (The invented reality), a book he was
a relatively small number of elements; Heinz, how children go about solving simple prob- about to publish in Germany. It came out in
who came to constructivism by way of formal lems of addition and subtraction. He called 1981 and has by now been reprinted 18 times.
logical and neurophysiological consider- the method “teaching experiments” and a It has done more than any other to spread the
ations; and myself, who had been led to it pro- crucial part of it was the use of videotapes, notion of cognitive construction. An English
saically by the differences among linguistic usually two or three minutes long. He, a grad- version of the book was published in the
realities. All three of us, however, had been uate student of his, the philosopher John United States by Norton in 1984, but as far as
driven by unquenchable dissatisfaction with Richards, and myself would spend countless I know the first edition was never sold out and
the traditional accounts. hours viewing these tapes and trying to agree the book is no longer listed by the publisher.
In 1974 Smock and I put together a report on what we gathered from them. We had The geographic difference in dissemination
with the title: “Epistemology and education: heated arguments and for all of us it was a has remained characteristic of constructivist
The implications of radical constructivism powerful lesson, hammering in the funda- ideas in general. In the United States and
for knowledge acquisition”. I wrote a chapter mental fact that what one observer sees is not England, radical constructivism is mentioned
assembling some philosophical precedents what another may see and that a common in the field of science and mathematics educa-
and presenting my interpretation of Piaget’s view can be achieved only by a strenuous tion. In Germany, Austria, and Italy it has
theory. It was the first time the epithet “radi- effort of mutual adaptation. In 1983 we become the subject of lively discussions
cal” was used. It was intended in the sense that jointly published a book, which, by means of among philosophers, psychologists, educa-
William James (1976) had used in his radical many protocols, illustrated our view of how tors, and therapists, and quite a number of
empiricism, i.e., meaning “going to the roots” children, through various stages of counting, books have been published on the subject.

10 Constructivist Foundations
historical radical constructivism

The discrepancy of dissemination applies ings.1 It is based on the simple realization of an ontic reality are accessible to human
also to the works of Humberto Maturana that, as our thinking, our conceptualizing, knowing. It therefore seems legitimate to try
(popular in Europe, but rarely if ever cited in and our language are developed from and in and conceive a model that may show how
the US). He calls his subject “Biology of Cog- the domain of our experience, we have no way what we call knowledge can be “constructed”
nition” and defines it as “an explanatory prop- of incorporating anything that lies beyond without reference to anything outside the
osition that attempts to show how human this domain. experiential confines.
cognitive processes arise from the operation This last point is also what distinguishes The notion of model, however, inevitably
of human beings as living systems. ” It falls radical constructivism from the “methodical contains assumptions that lie outside the
squarely among the efforts that try to explain philosophy” developed by Paul Lorenzen and domain the model may explain. In the case of
knowing as the result of self-organizing con- others at the University of Erlangen (Loren- constructivism it is the assumption of a con-
struction, but he has never been comfortable zen 1987). Much of what Lorenzen formu- sciousness that is able to remember, to reflect
with the term “construction” and prefers to lated agrees with radical constructivism, e.g., upon experience, and to develop likes and dis-
speak of “bringing forth”. “The theory of concepts I have sketched is not likes. It is the least a model of cognition must
a theory concerning existing things; it is not assume.
an ontology. Concepts as described here As for the future, I would suggest that
We can only check the belong to our actions; they are interpreted more work be done regarding the question
here functionally rather than ontologically” where the notions of society and of other con-
coherence of our (p. 12). But ontology still seems to enter into structing subjects come from. They are
his system when, in his essay on the “Logical needed to establish an intersubjective viabil-
constructs with other structure of language” (p. 105ff), he speaks of ity of conceptions. I have sketched a way in
experiences objects being “part of nature” and of “per- which a child could construct the notion of
sonal observation” as though the observed another entity rather like itself (Glasersfeld
were externally given. That there are serious 1979, 1989), and there are hints in Piaget’s
Maturana was a student of Warren McCul- disagreements between radical and “method- writings; but someone should systematically
loch and Jerry Lettvin and in collaboration ical” constructivism is indicated by the fact ask three-year-olds “How is the cat different
with them and Walter Pitts published the that Peter Janich, the main present-day repre- from your teddy bear?” and six-year-olds
paper “What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s sentative of the Erlangen School, vigorously “How is your sister different from the cat?”
brain” (Lettvin et al. 1959). McCulloch called attacked my way of thinking at the conference Clinical interviews would make the stories I
it the first step into experimental epistemol- on “Reality and Worldmaking” (Fischer & invented more plausible.
ogy and it can be considered the first experi- Schmidt 1998, pp. 65ff).
mental confirmation of radical constructiv-
ism. The frog builds up the image of a Note
desirable (i. e. digestible) insect from a pat- …what we call
tern of neural signals, regardless of what may 1. Psychologists, have known since Johannes
have triggered these signals. knowledge can be Müller (1838) that the sensory signals in
Commentators, especially in Germany, the nervous system may contain quantita-
have somehow come to believe that Mat-
“constructed” without tive data about a stimulus but apparently
urana’s biological theory of cognition is the reference to anything no qualitative “information”; it is a source
source and empirical justification of radical of puzzlement why so little effort has been
constructivism. This is a misconception.
outside the experiential made to unravel how the qualitative as-
When Protagoras wrote “Man is the measure confines pects of sensation originate.
of all things” and added “being is the same as
to appear to someone” (Diels 1957) he sug-
gested that what we consider knowledge is of There have been many others whose References
our own making. It has to be, because we can- thinking contained constructivist elements –
not check what we experience with what lies Rorty, Feyerabend, Bruner, Dewey, Brouwer, Ceccato, S. (ed.) (1969) Corso di linguistica
beyond the experiential interface; we can only Fleck, Bogdanov, and probably some I have operativa. Longanesi: Milan.
check the coherence of our constructs with never heard of; but, apart from the radical Diels, H. (1957) Die Fragmente der Vorsokra-
other experiences. Radical constructivism is constructivists I mentioned above, I know tiker. Rowohlt: Hamburg.
delighted to have biologists developing theo- none who tried to model the generation of Fischer, H. -R. & Schmidt, S. J. (eds.) (2000)
ries of autopoiesis and physicists developing knowledge without reference to an ontic real- Wirklichkeit und Welterzeugung. Carl
theories of quantum mechanics that are com- ity. Yet, if the skeptics are right – and two Auer Systeme: Heidelberg.
patible with a constructivist theory of know- thousand five hundred years of Western phi- Foerster, H. von (1972) An epistemology for
ing, but the theory of knowing does not losophy have not been able to prove them living things. In: Motin, E. & Piattelli-Pal-
depend on these more or less empirical find- wrong – neither the structure nor the texture marini, M. (eds.) L’unité de l’homme. Édi-

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 11

historical radical constructivism

tions du Seuil: Paris: (Reprinted as BCL Lettvin, J. , Maturana, H. R. , McCulloch, W. Steffe, L. P. , Glasersfeld, E. von, Richards, J. &
Report 9. 3). S. & Pitts, W. (1959) What the frog's eye Cobb, P. (1983) Children's counting types:
Glasersfeld, E. von (1979) Cybernetics, expe- tells the frog's brain. Proceedings of the Philosophy, theory, and application. Prae-
rience, and the concept of self. In: Ozer, M. IRE 47: 1940–1959. ger: New York.
N. (ed.) A cybernetic approach to the Lorenzen, P. (1987) Constructive philosophy. Whorf, B. L. (1956) Language, thought, and
assessment of children: Toward a more MIT Press: Cambridge. reality. MIT Press: Cambridge.
humane use of human beings. Westview Müller, J. (1838) Prinzip der spezifischen
Press: Boulder, CO, pp. 67–113. Also avail- Sinnesenergie. In: Handbuch der Physiol-
able at ogie des Menschen (vol. 1). Hoelscher: Links
papers/056.pdf Coblenz.
Glasersfeld, E. von (1989) Facts and the self Piaget, J. (1937) La construction du réel chez Further material on Ernst von Glasersfeld can
from a constructivist point of view. Poetics l’enfant. Delachaux et Niestlé: Geneva. be obtained from his new hormepage at
18: 435–448. Also available at http:// Smock, C. D. & Glasersfeld, E. von (eds.) (1974) Epistemology and education: The
James, W. (1976) Essays in radical empiri- implications of radical constructivism for
cism. Harvard University Press: Cam- knowledge acquisition (Report #14). Fol- Received: 12 August 2005
bridge. Originally published in 1912. low Through Publications: Athens GA. Accepted: 30 August 2005

12 Constructivist Foundations
historical second order cybernetics

Ceci n’est pas Heinz von Foerster

Diederik Aerts A Vrije Universiteit Brussel,
beginning of von Foerster’s Magrittean odys-
In 1995, the Leo Apostel Centre in Brus-
sels, Belgium, organised an interna-
stein”. He asked to have a little picture of Ein-
stein printed next to the announcement of his sey. It took some time before von Foerster was
tional conference called “Einstein meets Mag- talk in the conference programme booklet, a told that the university clinic was not the place
ritte”. Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine held wish we were glad to grant. As he explains in where he was supposed to be. He then took
the opening lecture at the conference, and the interview below, over time he had become another taxi, and showed the driver the con-
Heinz von Foerster’s lecture was scheduled convinced that semantics-related problems ference booklet in which his talk was
last. He was the oldest among the invited are more important – even for the ontological announced, thinking that this would get him
speakers, and Prigogine was the second-old- nature of things – than he estimated himself to the right place. He was right, for this time
est. Heinz von Foerster, having noticed this in his earlier days. He saw a striking resem- the taxi did take him to the military site. But
arrangement, commented at the conference blance in the ways both Einstein and Magritte this was not to be the end of his predicament.
dinner, “I am the oldest, and Prigogine is the revolutionized their respective fields of The barracks site is not an area where civilians
second-oldest. He opened the conference and inquiry and activity by making explicit the can easily enter, and it was only after von Foe-
I will close it, that is really perfect”. influence of the semantic level on the syntac- rster had marshalled his persuasive power,
Heinz von Foerster was enchanted by the tic level. Like no one before, Magritte played wielding the conference booklet as conclusive
conference theme “Einstein meets Magritte” with the insight that ‘the model is not the evidence, that the guards at the gate allowed
and – in the spirit of surrealist Belgian painter thing’, while Einstein shook the foundations him to enter the military zone. He was
René Magritte – had chosen an appropriate of all of physics with his theory of relativity. escorted to the cinema building, which had
title for his talk: “Ceci n’est pas Albert Ein- Here, observation influences space as well as conference announcements posted on its
time – two physical concepts that until then walls. Indeed, some of the young conference
were largely considered to be purely objective, assistants, during earlier visits undertaken to
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER or even a priori. check that it could be used as an alternative to
The way Heinz von Foerster arrived at the the university hall that Friday afternoon, had
Diederik Aerts is professor at the ‘Brussels
‘Einstein meets Magritte’ conference is itself a been eagerly putting up the posters at the cin-
Free University (Vrije Universiteit Brussel -
surrealistic story of pure Magrittean quality. ema entrance. But neither the military, nor
VUB)’ and director of the ‘Leo Apostel Cen-
It is worth telling it in some detail. On Friday the guards at the gate, nor any of the cinema
tre (CLEA)’, and interdisciplinary and inter-
evening, the last evening of the conference, staff watching a movie (“Dracula!”, von Foer-
university (VUB an the universities of Gent
there was to be a performance by the dance ster would comment later in a mysterious
and Leuven) research centre, where
and theatre group of Anne Teresa De Keers- voice) now seemed to know anything about
researchers of different disciplines work on
maker. To allow the troupe to prepare for their the conference.
interdisciplinary projects. He is also head of
performance, the large university hall, where All in all, it took von Foerster six long
the research group ‘Foundations of the
the Einstein meets Magritte conferences were hours to get from the airport to the campus –
Exact Sciences (FUND)’ at the VUB. He is
normally scheduled, therefore had to be made longer than it took him to cross the Atlantic
secretary of the ‘International Quantum
available to them on Friday afternoon. That is from the United States. I remember very viv-
Structures Association (IQSA)’ and editor
why the conference booklet announced that idly the state in which he arrived just after his
of the international journal ‘Foundations of
the last three lectures of the invited speakers, unexpected adventure. He was all excited, a
Science (FOS)’. He is a board member of
including von Foerster’s, would take place in bit angry, but fascinated at the same time. He
the ‘Worldviews group’, founded by the phi-
an old cinema building on the premises of a told about the amazing excitement he felt
losopher Leo Apostel, which investigates
military site close to the university campus. when being walked several times past and
the possibility of constructing integrated
The organising committee of the conference close by military horses standing in line.
worldviews, taking into account the recent
had provided all invited speakers with vouch- “The horses snorted and stamped like hell
scientific findings. He was the scientific and
ers for free taxi rides in Brussels on the days of each time I walked by, they knew that this was
artistic coordinator of the ‘Einstein meets
the conference. The vouchers were also a person who did not belong there, but …
Magritte’ conference, where the world’s
intended to be used on arrival at the airport to They definitely were the only ones to know
leading scientists and artists gathered to
get to the location where the conference was this for like three full hours… so you see
reflect about science, nature, human action
held. However, for some mysterious reason, everything is relative, Einstein and Magritte
and society.The material of the conference
rather than taking him from the airport to the would agree, in certain circumstances a horse
has been published in an eight-volume
university, the taxi driver drove Heinz von can be more intelligent than a human being.
series by by Kluwer Academic and VUB-
Foerster to the university clinic, at the oppo- These horses would have let me escape imme-
site end of town. This was to be only the diately.”

Constructivist Foundations 2005, vol. 1, no. 1 13

historical second order cybernetics

Despite his six-hour odyssey and three- the name of Warren McCulloch1, one of the English and whenever I was lost they took
hour captivity in Belgian barracks, he was leading scientists in neuropsychiatry, got hold over and translated what I said etc. etc. At the
delighted to grant the organisers the following of a book – a small booklet I should say – end of the whole thing I had to leave the
interview, in which he tells us about an even which I wrote in November of the previous room. I was called in after an hour and they
longer journey – that of his remarkable life and year on the quantum theory of memory. He said “Heinz, what you said was very interest-
scientific career. The transcription follows got hold of that thing. He read it and contacted ing but how you said it was abominable. We
Heinz von Foerster’s wording as closely as pos- me in New York the third or second day I have thought a way how to teach you English
sible in order to capture his unique conversa- arrived. “Mr Foerster this sounds very inter- the fast way. We appoint you to become the
tional charm. The endnotes were added later. esting what you wrote. I’m the chairman of a editor of our transaction.” – Can you imag-
conference which will take place in New York ine? I mean, this only in America can happen.
in about five, six days on circular causal and I said, “For heaven’s sake, my English is not
“Heinz, what you said feedback mechanism in biological and social good!” – “No, no, no that’s exactly why we
systems.” And I said “What?” I don’t under- appoint you.” – I said, “But then you have to
was very interesting stand a word of it.” He said, “Okay; why don’t change the title of that conference because I
you get yourself a book which has just can’t even pronounce the title of that confer-
but how you said it appeared in the bookstores. It’s called ‘cyber- ence!” And that is now an interesting point
was abominable” netics’ by Norbert Wiener2, a mathematician; and this is why I tell the story. I said, “Why
try to get that book and I’ll invite you to a con- don’t you call the conference ‘cybernetics’?” I
ference which takes place in 14 days from just had read the Wiener book, I had the feel-
Heinz von Foerster: We are now supposed to today in New York, you have only to go”. I said: ing that what these people were doing was
have an interview!? “Wonderful, I shall do that”. talking cybernetics. Everybody thought that’s
My vocabulary in English was then about a wonderful idea and applauded. And Norb-
Diederik Aerts: Yes. 30 words – yeah, maybe 32; anyway I got that ert Wiener was sitting next to me. They
HvF: Who is interviewing whom? cybernetics book by Norbert Wiener. I mean applauded of course to Norbert. And he was
when you read a scientific paper it’s always the so moved had tears in his eyes that his col-
I am interviewing you. same; I mean there are the Latin words and leagues accepted this funny word of “cyber-
HVF: You are interviewing me, okay. I am formulae you understand. I got the point of netics.” He had to get up and walked out of
ready for your interview. what Norbert Wiener was talking about. And the room because he wanted to hide his emo-
14 days later I came to the conference which tions.
Mr von Foerster, you are considered one of was at a beautiful old fashioned hotel which So then they adopted the word “cybernet-
the founders of the very important discipline does not exist anymore, on 5th Avenue. I came ics” for the conference, and with it my name
of “cybernetics”. It is true that this is also a to the conference. To my surprise there were was immediately linked to the cybernetic
discipline now, but it’s kind of more interdis- only 20 people. It was not a circus for an audi- publication of the Josiah Macy foundation
ciplinary than other disciplines, I would say. ence. It was 20 people talking with each other. meeting.
Can you tell us a few words about when you And these 20 people were the crème de la crème
began with these things? of American science. Warren McCulloch, one Because you did the editing?
HVF: A long time ago. of his guests was John von Neumann3, the HVF: I edited the first published conference
man who began the computer revolution, on cybernetics6.
And what inspired you? Norbert Wiener himself was there, Gregory
HVF: Oh well, I was very much inspired by Bateson4, the anthropologist, his wife at that And you learned a lot of English?
other people. Now I tell you the story – it’s a time Margaret Mead5, and I can rattle of HVF: I learned English; I realised after about
funny story. I left Vienna on an invitation of a names and names. 20 absolutely outstanding two months I got 10 cm of manuscript which
friend of my wife to come to New York. This people. So I came in as a greenhorn, had to give was typed from a legal typist who was sitting
was in 1949. So I sailed with the Queen Mary my story about … in the court – a stenographer – overtyping all
over the ocean, and unfortunately there were the conferences.
tremendous storms and spring storms over How old were you then?
the Atlantic. Everybody was seasick. But I grew HVF: This is of course ‘49. I must have been 38. And you stayed in the States then?
up very close to one of the great amusement So I give my story. And everybody was inter- HVF: Yeah, then I stayed with Warren McCul-
parks in Vienna so I don’t get seasick at all. So ested and I couldn’t of course tell my story loch and met with people of the University of
I was the only one, one of 2000 inhabitants of with 25 or 32 words in English. Illinois. Since at that time they were looking
Queen Mary, who was not seasick. I had about for a head of a particular section of research
20 waiters in the dining room waiting for me. And your story was about? and I happened to be just the man to do that,
I arrived in New York healthy and well fed. By HVF: My story was about quantum theory of I accepted that invitation and stayed with the
a very peculiar accident, one very interesting memory. So fortunately there were 2 or 3 university of Illinois for the next 30 years or
gentleman, an American neuropsychiatrist by gentlemen who spoke fluently German and something like that.

14 Constructivist Foundations
historical second order cybernetics

That’s a beautiful story. guistic problem, the understanding, the But I think your notion of transdiscipli-
HVF: So I stayed there and my wife and chil- hermeneutic problem – all these things are narity is interesting, very interesting. Going
dren came, after a couple of months to get relatively familiar to me. So I think there is a beyond the disciplinary segmentation and
them a visa and permits etc. This was tremen- point which I will also address perhaps fragmentation. Still interdisciplinarity says,
dous bureaucracy, I had to climb over the tomorrow on my paper because I will cele- “I’m a chemist who is interested in physics” –
bureaucratic fences which took me about a brate Magritte and Einstein as essentially “Ah! That means you are a chemical physicist
half a year more to get the permits and then semanticists, not so much as physicist and or a physical chemist.”
they could come. painter, but as people who were interested in
what is the meaning of a statement, what’s Still disciplines. And it is indeed dangerous
And then you started to work? going on when I make an explanation in that one should not make of the interdisci-
HVF: Yeah, I was not permitted to do any- which we connect some points with other plinary a new discipline.
thing during the time when I was only a visi- points, what are the semantic links. So these I HVF: Precisely! Exactly! These are the seman-
tor in the United States. To wait until all these think are the links between Magritte and Ein- tic traps. Language is taking over instead of
things were cleared and then I took my job at stein. you taking over the language.
the University of Illinois as the director of the
electron tube research lab. And from there on I didn’t think myself of this! You mean Ein- And the trap is very concrete the moment
I continued my connection with the Macy stein when he was carefully reflecting on the you want to find funding.
people and with the cybernetics people and observers, how time and space got com- HVF: Yeah! you must play the trap. Absolutely!
then after seven years … you know, six years pletely transformed by these indeed ‘seman- You had to put the trap to others who are set-
you have to be at a university then you can get tic’ reflections? ting the trap. Otherwise they will be disap-
these wonderful sabbatical leaves. In this year HVF: Exactly, precisely! I will bring about pointed like a guy who’s putting up a mouse-
I thought I should learn more about biol- tomorrow. I will not give it away at the trap and no mouse goes into it. The mouse has
ogy, neurology, neurophilosophy, and moment in our interview but I to get into the trap to satisfy the trapper.
neuroanatomy and went to McCulloch to found a wonderful perception of
MIT, to the Massachusetts Institute of Einstein in his early days when he So you need to have a false mouse.
Technology, for half a year. Then I was was wrestling with a notion which HVF: Yes, you have a very good point. You
working in Mexico is later found in the special theory of need a false mouse. So they snap over the false
with a friend of relativity where mouse and you can do your own thing.
Norbert Wieners, he came up
Arthur with a meta- But when we want funding we must present
Rosenblueth7, who phorical state- it as a discipline of course, the discipline of
wrote with me ment of his. If interdisciplinarity, but we would like to keep
some early papers you read that it open and not fall into this trap.
about cybernetics today and you HVF: Yeah! For many cases you could find a
and I worked then think he had good name which does not betray or belie the
in Rosenblueth’s told his notion point you are trying to make, but at the same
laboratory in to a physician at time would be understood by sponsors which
Mexico City for an insane asy- would be governmental agencies or founda-
half a year. And lum he would tions – something like that. That would be
then I came back probably be put very important. A name for this global prob-
and said now I inside that asy- lem from a linguistic point of view.
start a new lab and then I lum. This man is
started the Biological Computer Lab7 in 1958. crazy. He thinks Yes, it’s true. So okay, we’ve now arrived at
about things that don’t exist, he is talking this period where you were in Illinois.
What were the problems that fascinated you about them freely as if they were existing. I HVF: Yeah! As I said, I took a sabbatical and
in this period? thought this is a wonderful example of inge- started to make a foundation of the biological
HVF: At that time? Probably still the same nuity. computer lab. This was of course strongly
things. Today I feel more and more that influenced from the perspective of this cyber-
semantic problems are involved in our under- You’ve made me curious. But I’ll have to wait netic group of McCulloch, Wiener, Von Neu-
standing of things. These are notions of until tomorrow. Now, you are in a sense the mann. I had a very good rapport with all these
course which were already produced by Wit- example of an interdisciplinary interested gentlemen. Von Neumann, for instance, who
tgenstein and other philosophers who hap- person. was at Princeton at that time, invited me again
pened to be reasonably well known by me HVF: No disciplines, no disciplines, no disci- and again to come for several reasons. One is
because this is all coming out of the so called plines … interdisciplinarity is already disci- of course that he went to school in Budapest,
Vienna circle. The language problem, the lin- plinarity. which was part of the Austrian Kaiserliche und

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 15

historical second order cybernetics

Königliche Habsburg monarchy. So he wanted covered. The rules of mathematics, numbers way but today you would do it with transis-
to know what is Vienna doing under Russian and everything is floating in the universe and tors. He had this machine standing in his lab
occupation and was of course very worried from time to time God permits me, takes off in London and you were allowed with a
with members of his family in Budapest. So I the veil, and I see this incredible truth – this is sledgehammer to destroy 500 tubes. It was
could tell him a little about what the Russians one school of mathematics. The other school doing some particular things – I don’t know
were doing. They were occupying the region, says it is our invention. We invented the num- what but anyway – you went there with a
Budapest and Vienna. And Norbert Wiener’s bers, we invented the calculus, it is our game sledgehammer… for a moment the pointers
wife is from Silesia, from Schlesien. I was in of doing things. Of course these two camps wiggled but then brrrr! moved into stability.
Silesia the last month of the existence of Ger- cannot talk to each other. But I was immedi- So you could see if systems are constructed so
many. So she wanted to know, “Heinz can you ately taken by the inventors and I followed the that they can self repair – autodynamics etc
tell be about this and that, how did the people inventor school of mathematics – the con- etc. – it is the key for the brain. He had a won-
flee, how did they get out of the Russian occu- structivist school of mathematics; in the 19th derful example.
pation?” etc. etc. So in both of these cases per- century they were called the intuitionists. So The example of a man who was working in
sonal interests brought me closer and closer to there were two big camps, the Kronecker12 a rolling mill, a big rotary mill where, for
these fabulous people. camp and the Hilbert13 camp. Hilbert was the instance, steel rods are being built and what
With Margaret Mead I had a very good formalist; he said, “I have nothing to do with you do is you come with a thick piece of metal,
rapport. At once she was, I think, inventing these guys and I do my formulae and I’m which is red hot, go through the first wheels
the idea of teaching Heinz English by making working with them!” And Kronecker and his where it’s squeezed to a smaller one and
him the editor of the transactions. people said, “You invent all that stuff, I mean, becomes longer and is shot into the next mill,
it’s quite clear.” shot and shot and shot, and becomes thinner
This was her idea? and thinner, longer and longer. At one instant
HVF: Yeah, I think this was her idea, I have In which camp was von Neumann? this rod – glowing – missed the next mill, shot
this suspicion. It’s the woman who had this HVF: Von Neumann was a constructivist, into the eye of a worker, penetrated the brain,
crazy idea but the men went along, and I yeah, yeah. So we had a magnificent time was sticking out at the other end. They
admired her very much. I mean in this cyber- with each other. stopped the mill, carried the man, cut the
netics meeting with all these brilliant men, sticks, and brought him to Ross Ashby. The
there is, of course, a tendency that they show man was talking! The man could talk! They
off their knowledge, show their peacock removed the rod because the man could die.
feathers, and so on. But at the moment when He had this machine Of course the man had difficulties talking but
that happened Margaret put her fist on the standing in his lab in it was a functional creature. This is an exam-
table, “We know that you can speak Greek! ple of self repair, of switching certain func-
Why don’t you talk about what we are talking London and you were tions of the brain into the part which is still
about!” It was fabulous how she was running allowed with a intact, taking over what was lost, and the man
the show, the only woman in that group. And still functioned.
with many others, Heinrich Klüver9, who sledgehammer to So Ashby became interested in these very
came also from Germany, I had a rapport general systemic structures which maintain
again and again. He was in Chicago. I was in
destroy 500 tubes themselves.
Illinois. We met each other again and again And then I had Humberto Maturana15 as
and then I met some other friends of the early a guest for one or one and a half years who
Vienna period, Karl Menger10, a famous At the computer lab, you were working on brought in the autopoietic notion generated
mathematician, incredible mathematician, many things – what would you yourself in my lab. Things of that sort. And then at the
the son of a very famous economist, Carl point out as the most important things that last contract with the institute of health, the
Menger11, the papa with C, the son Karl is you were doing? national institute of health, we worked on
with K, so you have a distinction between HVF: I will tell you the names and you will get haematology and population dynamics etc.
papa and son. The son is dropping in the a little bit of the idea. One of the early partic- etc.
alphabet from C to K, but anyway. Karl ipants was Ross Ashby14, a British psychiatrist So we were playing in many different
Menger was one of my teachers at university – who turned to cybernetics early in his life. He domains but with the same, should I say
a very young teacher. He was not very much realised that the standard notion of dysfunc- philosophical–epistemological attitude. It
older than I was as a student. He must have tion–function of the brain is not the way to do produces a lot of different things and this I
been 30 when I was 22 or something like that. it. One must have a deeper knowledge about think is what I enjoyed mostly.
I was very fond of Menger’s notion of mathe- the whole thing. So he became interested in
matics. This was a confirmation of the con- life systems which function even if you Francisco Varela16 came in too?
structivist notion of the 19th century. destroy large sections of that system. He built HVF: Varela never was in, I only knew Fran-
The famous battle between two schools of the first large machine out of, I think, 2000 cisco as a young man he was first staying in
mathematics. One says mathematics is dis- vacuum tubes – at that time it was the only Chile with…

16 Constructivist Foundations
historical second order cybernetics

He had to leave today, I think, but he wanted around you. I have a young man who twice a
to meet you. week takes the train, goes to Chicago, sees his
HVF: I met him this morning, we had break- psychiatrist, comes back, and is incapable of
“What did you do to
fast together. I was very glad to meet him. And doing anything. Would you like to see that that man?” I said,
I invited him again to come see me in Califor- man?” – “Of course, send him over!” So he
nia, but he said he was so busy and he has dif- sent him over here. Here came a very shy
“Nothing! I told him a
ficulties to go there. Anyway Francisco is a man to me in my lab. I said, “You are a math- problem which I could
dear, dear old friend of mine, only that he was ematician, what is your interest? Integrals?
never at the BCL. Maturana was at the BCL, Differential equations? Or what is it?” He not solve”
some other people from Chile. Ashby I said this and that. “Wonderful! You are just
already mentioned. Then Gordon Pask17, the right man!” I gave him the following
perhaps. He is well-known. Gordon was problem so I go to the board and say I have That’s very nice, so you really had a very
spending good 2 years at BCL. no idea of how to go about that stuff. He said, good atmosphere there?
“Let me think about that!” So three days later HVF: I had a wonderful atmosphere! The
How did you manage to have this center? he came back. “I think I have a way of going people they stayed friends for the rest of their
You were the director and managing it? about that.” – “I thought you go to Chicago?” lives, I’m sure.
HVF: I was managing the whole thing, not – “No, no, I have no time I was working on
only the intellectual and scientific part but that problem.” But I know, because we have here also visit-
also the financial part. I did it all and I must ing a composer from Illinois University and
say I’m still very impressed how much money He was cured. he didn’t know you because he’s younger but
I brought in. HVF: He had no time to see the doctor. My he says that your name is still well-known.
There was constantly a group of 30 people. friend the mathematician, “What did you do HVF: Yes, I wrote a book about music by com-
May be 20 students, graduate students, some to that man?” I said, “Nothing! I told him a puters which was partly doing with people
of them making their Ph.D. thesis, the fasci- problem which I could not solve.” So this from the music lab at the university.
nating thing was that they were paid for doing immediately put him on the track. And I
their doctoral dissertation because they were really don’t know the mathematics; this guy We have to go to Pirsig18 now.
backed in the research projects. knows much more than I. But I know the HVF: We have to go to Pirsig, let’s go! Okay,
I remember a young man, no, a professor of problem, I know who might be able to go let’s take some motorcycle and go to Pirsig!
the department of mathematics said, “Heinz about. Wonderful!
I know you have all these crazy people

Notes 4. Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) was a high- 8. The BCL was founded at the University of
ly interdisciplinarily working anthropolo- Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. See Müller
1. Warren McCulloch (1899–1969) neuro- gist, linguist, social scientist, and (2000) for a detailed article on the history
physiologist and cybernetician working psychiatrist. of the BCL.
on mathematically neural network model- 5. Margaret Mead (1901–1978) was an an- 9. Heinrich Klüver (1897–1979) made im-
ing. Together with Walter Pitts he showed thropologist focusing on psychologically portant contributions to visual psycholo-
in the 1943 paper “A logical calculus of the oriented field work as well as building in- gy, psychopharmacology, and animal
ideas immanent in nervous activity” how terdisciplinary links between anthropolo- behavior research. Working as neurologist
a neural network consisting of binary gy and other fields. at the University of Chicago, he intro-
threshold neurons can carry out logical in- 6. “Cybernetics. Circular causal, and feed- duced Gestalt psychology to the US and
ferences at the level of first-order logic. back mechanisms in biological and social helped to formulate the discipline that is
2. Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) became systems.” Transactions of the Sixth Con- today known as neuroscience.
eventually known as the founder of cyber- ference 1949, edited by Heinz von Foer- 10.Karl Menger (1902–1985), mathematician
netics based on this book (“Cybernetics or ster. Republished together with the and member of the Vienna Circle, known
Control and Communication in the Ani- following four transactions by Claus Pias for his work on various topics such as
mal and the Machine”) which he pub- (2003). curve and dimension theory, algebras,
lished in 1948. 7. Mexican physiologist Arturo S. Rosen- probabilistic metric, and algebra of geom-
3. John von Neumann (1903–1957) not only blueth (1900–1970) researched the chem- etries. In the 1930s he worked with intu-
made contributions to various mathemat- ical mechanism of nervous impulses itionist mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer. In
ical fields but also had a major impact on transmission at the Departments of Phys- 1936 he emigrated to the US to work from
quantum physics, game theory, set theory, iology and Pharmacology at the Instituto 1946 on at the Illinois Institute of Tech-
computer science, and economics. Nacional de Cardiología in Mexico City. nology in Chicago.

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 17

historical second order cybernetics

11.Economist Carl Menger von Wolfensgrün 15.Humberto Maturana (1928–) is neurobi- References
(1840–1921) was the founder of the Aus- ologist at the University of Chile who de-
trian school of economics. veloped the concept of autopoiesis. Müller, A. (2000) Eine kurze Geschichte des
12.Mathematician Leopold Kronecker 16.Francisco Varela (1946–2002), a former BCL. Österreichische Zeitschrift für
(1823–1891) is known for his statement student of Maturana. Later he pursued his Geschichtswissenschaften 11: 9–30. Also:
“God created the integers, all else is the own vision to develop a calculus of self-
work of man” expressing his idea on a fi- reference. papers/mueller/mueller00-bcl.html
nite mathematics which should forgo 17.Gordon Pask (1928–1996) developed a Pias, C. (ed.) (2003) Cybernetics | Kybernetik.
non-constructive existence proofs. Conversation Theory which he applied to The Macy-Conferences 1946–1953. Vol-
13.David Hilbert (1862–1943) favoured for- education. It grew out of his cybernetic ume 1 Transactions/Protokolle. Dia-
malist mathematics according to which understanding of human-machine inter- phanes: Zürich, Berlin.
mathematics can be defined using a finite action as a form of conversation and dy-
and consistent set of axioms. This was namic process in which the participants
proved impossible by Kurt Gödel’s In- learn about each other. Further links
completeness Theorem in 1931. 18.Referring to Pirsig’s talk at the conferences
14.W. Ross Ashby (1903–1972), was one of that started about when this interview end- The entire interview can be downloaded as
the founders of cybernetics and general ed. Robert Pirsig (1928–) became famous audio file from
systems theory, focusing on self-organis- with his 1974 book called “Zen and the Art structivism/journal/1.1/interview.mp3
ing systems, information theory, and ma- of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry
chine learning. From 1959 to 1970 he was into Value”, which introduced the “Meta-
professor at the Biological Computer Lab- physics of Quality” to account for the link Paper received: 20 September 2005
oratory. between quality, morality and reality. Paper accepted: 20 September 2005

18 Constructivist Foundations
engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

Enactive Cognitive Science.

Part 1: Background and Research Themes
Kevin McGee A Linköping University,

structivist thought, and as such, it is not

Purpose: This paper is a brief introduction to enactive cognitive science: a description of intended as a detailed introduction to (or
some of the main research concerns; some examples of how such concerns have been defense of) constructivism. (For an excep-
realized in actual research; some of its research methods and proposed explanatory mech- tionally lucid introduction to constructivism
anisms and models; some of the potential as both a theoretical and applied science; and and radical constructivism, see Glasersfeld
several of the major open research questions. Findings: Enactive cognitive science is an 1995.) A related point is that this paper is not
approach to the study of mind that seeks to explain how the structures and mechanisms an attempt to argue whether (or how) enac-
of autonomous cognitive systems can arise and participate in the generation and mainte- tive cognitive science differs from radical con-
nance of viable perceiver-dependent worlds – rather than more conventional cognitivist structivism. Rather it is a brief survey that
efforts, such as the attempt to explain cognition in terms of the “recovery” of (pre-given, attempts to answer the question, what does
timeless) features of The (objectively-existing and accessible) World.As such, enactive cog- cognitive science look like when conducted
nitive science is resonant with radical constructivism. Research implications:As with within a broadly radical constructivist orien-
other scientific efforts conducted within a constructivist orientation, enactive cognitive tation. For the purposes of this paper, the dif-
science is broadly “conventional” in its scientific methodology.That is, there is a strong ference between enactive cognitive science
emphasis on testable hypotheses, empirical observation, supportable mechanisms and and radical constructivism is that one can be
models, rigorous experimental methods, acceptable criteria of validation, and the like. a radical constructivist – even a philosopher
Nonetheless, this approach to cognitive science does also raise a number of specific ques- of mind – without being a cognitive scientist.
tions about the scope of amenable phenomena (e.g., meaning, consciousness, etc.) – and And, indeed, most of the literature on radical
it also raises questions of whether such a perspective requires an expansion of what is constructivism would not be considered a
typically considered within the purview of scientific method (e.g., the role of the observer/ direct contribution to cognitive science; this
scientist). Key words: cognition, radical constructivism. paper is intended to present a brief overview
of some work that is. This, in turn, raises
another issue: the emphasis here is on science,
Introduction of vocabulary (readers familiar with the stan- as commonly understood. Thus, although it is
dard constructivist caveats can safely skip this possible to have some distinctly relativistic,
The purpose of this paper is to introduce section). The paper proper begins in the next post-modern responses to constructivist
enactive cognitive science and to provide a section by presenting several examples of tenets – e.g., “science is a story that is one of
brief survey of some concerns and research results from cognitive research in perception; many possible stories, each with their own
work that could be said to fall within this these are intended to contextualize for the merits” – this paper does not enter into dis-
emerging discipline. reader why some researchers feel dissatisfied cussions or debates about such things as the
The paper is in two parts. The first part, with the dominant objectivist, cognitivist relative merits of scientific versus non-scien-
published here, provides some background paradigm, and why they are motivated to seek tific stories for explaining cognition.
and an overview of some major research or develop alternative paradigms such as For the purposes of this paper, a number
themes of enactive cognitive science. The sec- enactive cognitive science. This part then con- of terms are used in particular ways and an
ond part, to be published in a later issue, will cludes by highlighting several of the disci- attempt is made to situate various work
look more closely at some of enactive cogni- pline’s major research themes. within some meaningful categories. Although
tive science’s research methods and proposed In such a short paper, the topics and exam- such choices, and discussions about them, are
explanations, mechanisms, and models of ples are obviously meant to be illustrative an important part of the research process, it is
enactive cognitive science; more recent rather than fully detailed or comprehensive; not the purpose of this paper to enter into a
research; applications; and open questions the various references and bibliography debate about whether we should call a collec-
and areas of future research. should provide good indications of where to tive research effort enactive cognitive science or
The plan of this part is as follows. The look for more details. cognitive science in a radical constructivist vein
remainder of this section presents some brief Before starting, it is important to highlight or genetic epistemology – nor whether we
preliminary comments about constructiv- a few things that this paper is not. It assumes should classify a particular researcher as
ism, radical constructivism, and related issues a certain basic degree of familiarity with con- belonging to one approach or the other. To

Constructivist Foundations 2005, vol. 1, no. 1 19

engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

the extent possible, an attempt has been made that the use is consistent with its typical usage radical constructivism while reading about
to situate and describe researchers and their and meaning in quantum mechanics the research themes. Some brief background
work in ways that they themselves would rec- (acknowledgments to Heisenberg notwith- about radical constructivism now follows.
ognize and accept. Of course, this is not standing), even those who speak of “enactive
always possible; often it is the most interesting cognition” or “enactive mind” and explicitly
and complex work that winds up in the cite Varela et. al. as their predecessors, do not From objectivism to
“boundaries” of our classifications – and we always have the same radical orientation as
wind up with such discussions as whether they do. Ami Klin and colleagues (Klin et al.
radical constructivism
Piaget is a realist or a radical constructivist, 2003), for example, acknowledge them as the In order to situate enactive cognitive science,
what differences (if any) there are between source of inspiration for their own enactive it will help to sketch some of the contributing
theoretical cognitive science and philosophy mind approach to the study of autism; how- philosophical models: objectivism, subjectiv-
of mind, and so on. The definitions and cate- ever, their summary interpretation of Varela, ism, realist constructivism, and radical con-
gories proposed here, then, are fluid and Thompson, and Rosch’s enactive model is structivism. Briefly, objectivism takes as
pragmatic; the greatest hope for this paper is that “agents may vary in what they are seeking largely unproblematic the belief that human
that it helps facilitate substantive discussion, in the environment, resulting in highly dis- beings are objectively real cognitive agents
cooperative research, and the sharing of parate “mental representations” of the world that exist as separate entities in an objective,
related research among those who are practic- they are interacting with” (Klin et al. 2003, independently-existing real world with real
ing cognitive science with regard to the con- p. 349). This, however, is something closer to properties. Cognition, by this view, consists of
cerns as they are broadly sketched here. a subjectivist model of how individual inter- perceiving (or “recovering”) information
Having said that, there are some impor- pretations differ from the “intended message” about that world, processing it, and acting
tant distinctions that will appear in this paper; of the sender. This is not meant as a critique upon it. And cognition can be (more or less)
in particular, distinctions between the termi- of the work of Klin, merely to highlight that true or false to the extent that human percep-
nology, the results, and the purpose of different such a model is both philosophically very dif- tion and models, opinions, and beliefs corre-
research that seems in one way or another ferent from more radical perspectives of such spond to this world. In the transition from
related to enactive cognitive science. things as learning (Glasersfeld 1995, Varela philosophy to cognitive science, this model
Right from the start, there is a source of 1999a) – and scientifically a different model of has been largely couched in terms of percep-
potential confusion related to the term enac- social cognition than, for example, the radical tion and processing (“inner”) and features
tive as it is used within the constructivist tra- one put forward in the theory of autopoiesis (“outer”). Similarly, the issues of cognitive
dition. The term was initially popularized by (Maturana & Varela 1987). change have been largely formulated in terms
Jerome Bruner, a constructivist cognitive sci- Thus, as with all disciplines, there are of genetic and environmental determinism
entist, who introduced to identify a particular issues of terminology – where similar technical (“nature versus nurture”) – and the degree to
way to “translate experience into a model of terms or phrases are used in varying ways. In which cognitive mechanisms are innately
the world” (Bruner 1966, p. 10) – that is, there this paper we will also encounter another kind given at birth, the result of maturation, trig-
are certain “mental models” (such as, know- of distinction: scientific work that produces gered by environmental phenomena, or oth-
ing how to ride a bicycle) that seem to be the descriptions, experimental results, or pro- erwise “emerge out of experience.”
result of action rather than, say, logical analy- posed mechanisms that are useful for enactive One of the major alternatives to the objec-
sis. The phrase enactive cognitive science, on cognitive science – even when that work is not tivist perspective is subjectivism, which leaves
the other hand, was coined by Francisco explicitly conducted as part of an overall the inside/outside dichotomy largely
Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch attempt to do cognitive science within a radi- untouched and simply reverses the emphasis
(1991), who clearly wished to emphasize the cal constructivist framework. In other words, by arguing that “The World” is a “projection”
radical constructivist nature of actively there is a great deal of interesting research in of mind. Objectivist concerns (and in certain
“bringing forth” and sustaining a viable world “conventional” cognitive science that can be ways, subjectivist concerns as well) inform
that is inextricably related to the structure of useful for explaining certain cognitive phe- much of conventional cognitive science – or
the knower. (We will have more to say below nomena in enactive terms – even though this cognitivism – and cut across such distinctions
about subsequent researchers who have con- may not the intention of the researchers as preferences for employing “symbolic” or
centrated on a single aspect of the enactive themselves (and even in cases where they “connectionist” computational models.
agenda, with, for example, proposals for explicitly reject the radical constructivist ori- Another alternative to objectivism, con-
active cognitive mechanisms that do not try to entation, e.g., Brooks 1991, Lakoff & Johnson structivism, challenges a number of assump-
address the issue of enacting a phenomenal 1999). tions shared by both objectivism and subjec-
world.) Throughout the paper, we will try to indi- tivism – in particular, the notion that minds
This example highlights the fact that the cate terms, such as embodiment and situated and worlds are pre-given and that cognition
central terms used in this paper are used in action, that are used in different ways by dif- consists entirely of recovery (on the part of the
many ways by many researchers, constructiv- ferent researchers in other research traditions. individual) or responding (to “transmissions”
ist and otherwise. So, just as the use of the Nonetheless, readers may find it most helpful from the environment). One of the key figures
term uncertainty principle does not guarantee to keep in mind some of the basic tenets of in the constructivist tradition is Kant who

20 Constructivist Foundations
engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

argued that knowledge is not simply “given by sions as “individual-based” constructivism ture; similarly, it is possible to identify, pro-
experience” (of an objective universe) nor the (often attributed to Piaget (Gruber & pose, and model possible mechanisms of such
result of abstract reasoning (about such a uni- Voneche 1977) or “social constructivism” active construction, whether they are “in the
verse); rather, there are intermediate mental (attributed to Vygotsky 1978). It can even be individual” or “in a system that includes (or
structures, which he called schemas. One con- seen in the work of some less overtly objectiv- enacts) the individual.”
sequence of Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” ist constructivists, who say they “do not care” We now turn to look at some of the major
in epistemology is that emphasis shifts from about the ontological status of reality, but research themes of enactive cognitive science
debates about cognition as recovery of The rather about “reality as it is for the person.” that can be seen as broadly resonant with the
World to the issue of structures (schemas) This realist version of constructivism has major concerns of radical constructivism.
that inform the world as known and experi- informed work in a variety of domains, from
enced. For Kant, there is still some influence family therapy to pedagogy to the develop-
of The World (so this is not simply solipsism), ment of pedagogical materials; it is also reso- Enactive cognitive
but the world we live and know “bears the nant with a great deal of research in the scien-
mark of our structure.” Kant’s schemas were tific study of mind.
simply theoretical structures; it was Jean “Radical constructivism, thus, is radical “…the enactive approach consists of two points:
Piaget and others in the early twentieth cen- because it breaks with convention and devel- (1) perception consists in perceptually guided
tury who contributed to research on possible ops a theory of knowledge in which knowl- action and (2) cognitive structures emerge from
mechanisms of active cognitive construction. edge does not reflect an “objective” ontologi- the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable
One way to describe Piaget’s work is that it cal reality, but exclusively an ordering and action to be perceptually guided. The overall con-
took Kant’s model seriously – and more organization of a world constituted by our cern …is not to determine how some perceiver-
importantly, it tried to address the question of experience.” (Glasersfeld 1984, p. 24) independent world is to be recovered; it is, rather,
how such an epistemological model can give The latter, radical, version of constructiv- to determine the common principles or lawful
rise to our experience of a viable, reliable, and ism holds that it is not just (some) “knowl- linkages between sensory and motor systems
solid world. Piaget’s proposal, in a nutshell, is edge of The World” that is constructed by the that explain how action can be perceptually
that “intelligence organizes the world by orga- cognizing agent, but rather, the agent’s knowl- guided in a perceiver-dependent world.”
nizing itself ” (Piaget 1955, p. 311). Piaget edge and its phenomenal world (i.e., the world – Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 173
argued that although the mechanisms to cre- as it is for the cognitive agent) are both the
ate individual schemas may be innate, most of result of active construction. Ernst von Gla- During the 20th century, Jean Piaget, Lev
the actual schemas are not, that their con- sersfeld coined the term radical constructivism Vygotsky, Jakob von Uexküll and Maurice
struction is not simply a matter of genetic to distinguish it from more objectivist variet- Merleau-Ponty initiated pioneering research
unfolding, and that the ones that are con- ies of constructivism. He has also nicely sum- to propose possible constructivist methods
structed are not directly determined by the marized some of its major concerns (Glasers- for studying cognition – and to empirically
environment (and may not even correspond feld 1995, p. 51). support possible constructivist models and
directly to aspects of some independent envi- [ Knowledge is not passively received either mechanisms for explaining cognition. Rele-
ronment). (For a nice constructivist account through the senses or by way of communi- vant research also occurred in both the nat-
that sketches some connections from Kant to cation; ural and artificial sciences: from biology,
related twentieth century proposals for cogni- [ Knowledge is actively built up by the cog- neurophysiology, psychology, linguistics,
tive mechanisms, see Papert 1988.) nizing subject. semiotics, sociology, and anthropology to
Within the epistemologically-oriented [ The function of cognition is adaptive, in structuralism, cybernetics, systems theory,
constructivist tradition it is useful to distin- the biological sense of the term, tending artificial intelligence, robotics, and the more
guish between realist and radical constructiv- towards fit or viability; recent “sciences of complexity” (e.g., artifi-
ism. [ Cognition serves the subject’s organiza- cial life). (For a popular account of this his-
The former is largely objectivist in its belief tion of the experiential world, not the dis- tory that is sympathetic to the concerns of
in an external, objective, knowable world. By covery of an objective ontological reality. enactive cognitive science, see Capra 1996;
this view, constructive mechanisms tend to be Radical constructivism as a philosophy of for a treatment that concentrates on biology
“in the head” of the cognitive agent – and cog- mind in the western tradition can be traced and some implications for contemporary
nitive construction is one way a cognitive back at least 2500 years. As a particular orien- work in robotics, see Sharkey & Ziemke
agent comes to have such things as interpreta- tation, it has informed work in various 1998.) And, of course, during the same
tions, opinions, beliefs, and models of that domains: pedagogy and therapy being among period there have been more philosophi-
objectively existing world. By this view, the two most prominent. In recent years, it cally-oriented discussions of related topics,
knowledge is still more or less a “mirror of has informed the scientific study of cognition e.g., James (1907), Dewey (1916), White-
nature” (Rorty 1979), but some of that – as well as the development of materials head (1979), Heidegger (1962), Wittgenstein
knowledge is the result of active construction based on the insights of such study. It is pos- (1963), Mead (1934), Gadamer (1976),
by the cognitive agent. This realist orientation sible, for example, to study how the world of Goodman (1978), Rorty (1979), Glasersfeld
tends to cut across such sub-tradition divi- a cognizing agent relates to the agent’s struc- (1995).

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 21

engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

In order to contextualize some of the tury, the study of frog vision (Lettvin et al. sistent correlations between percepts and sen-
research themes and mechanisms proposed 1959). As a result of that work and his subse- sory-responses. They found that there could
by enactive cognitive science, we will begin by quent work on color-perception in pigeons be different responses to the same percepts –
looking at a few examples of phenomena or (Maturana, Uribe & Frenk 1968) he came to and the same sensory responses to different
results that motivate this approach. Readers adopt a radically different perspective on cog- percepts. Being good scientists, they did
familiar with the philosophical and epistemo- nition. His description of this transition in his doubt their own results; they tried in various
logical history of radical constructivism may thinking is broadly similar to stories that ways to control their experiments and to
feel that the issue is already well-motivated other researchers mentioned here have told ensure there were not other complicating fac-
from reason; nonetheless, in the turn to sci- about their own work – their initial, conven- tors involved (something, again, typical for
ence, it can also be helpful to find similar tional convictions, their struggle to reconcile many of the other researchers discussed here).
motivations from cognitive research. Since research results with existing paradigms for In the end, they felt compelled to entertain a
much of cognitivism is premised on certain interpretation of those results, and their ulti- more radical reorientation.
assumptions about interactions between mate conviction that an alternative paradigm As a result of this work, Maturana
“inner mind” and “outer world,” we will look was required – so it is worth quoting him at (together with Francisco Varela and others)
specifically at some research in the area of per- length. went on to develop an autopoietic model of
ception. “…[when we did our research on frog biological functioning and cognition. By this
Note that it would have been possible to vision] we did it with the implicit assumption view, any physical structure with an autopoi-
describe motivating examples that highlight that we were handling a clearly defined cogni- etic – that is, self-producing and self-main-
problems with conventional objectivist tive situation: there was an objective (abso- taining – organization is both living and cog-
accounts of, say, social cognition. However, the lute) reality, external to the animal, and inde- nitive. We will not defend this definition here
debate between proponents of “individual” pendent of it (not determined by it), which it (although, for more detail, see Maturana &
and “social” constructivism is among the could perceive (cognize), and the animal Varela 1980, 1987, and for a critique, see
most controversial in the entire constructivist could use the information obtained in its per- Boden 2000), but merely note that by this def-
tradition and there is a risk of devoting too ception to compute a behavior adequate to inition, a biological cell is the smallest known
much attention to this one issue here. We will the perceived situation. “unit” of life (and cognition). And, for the
return to the topic of social cognition in a sec- “…[when we began to study color vision remainder of this paper will use this defini-
tion below. in pigeons] it soon became apparent to us that tion as a way to loosely circumscribe the scope
As we consider these and other examples, that approach leads to deep trouble. …There of enactive cognitive science; that is, we will
it is important to keep in mind that even as we are many visual configurations, with uniform consider cognitive phenomena from the cel-
discuss, say, biology, the results and subse- and variegated spectral compositions, in sim- lular to the social.
quent hypotheses need not be taken as asser- ple and complex geometrical forms, that give
tions about some objective, material reality. rise to indistinguishable color experiences. Olfactory system
Rather, the relevance of such examples to How should one, then, look for the invari- The quotation from Maturana above does not
enactive cognitive science is that the experi- ances in the activity of the nervous system, if go into much detail about the particulars of
mental results challenge certain notions any, in relation to the perception of color? the difficulties of correlating sensory-infor-
about the existence of an objective, timeless “…What if, instead of attempting to corre- mation with cognitive processing, so some
reality; the proposed cognitive mechanisms late the activity in the retina with the physical readers may not believe that there were
do not rely on a correspondence between an stimuli external to the organism, we did oth- enough challenges to the objectivist model to
agent’s cognitive model and an indepen- erwise, and tried to correlate the activity in warrant a major shift in orientation. The fol-
dently-existing objective world; and some of the retina with the color experience of the lowing example serves two purposes. First, to
the proposed paradigms for interpretation subject? …the new approach required us to give a more textured description of the exper-
bypass certain traditional, objectivist treat seriously the activity of the nervous sys- imental challenges for this type of research –
assumptions. tem as determined by the nervous system and some of the difficulties that arise in
That said, we now turn to four brief exam- itself, and not by the external world …still assuming perception is some reasonably
ples of cognitive phenomena related to per- more fundamental was the discovery that one straightforward form of veridical recovery
ception: research on color-vision in pigeons, had to close off the nervous system to account and processing of an objective and indepen-
on the workings of the olfactory system in for its operation, and that perception should dently-existing world. Second, to describe
rabbits, on categories and concepts in not be viewed as the grasping of an external some results of such research that suggest
humans, and on the structure of the human reality, but rather as the specification of actual problems for the objectivist assump-
visual system. one…” (Maturana 1980b, pp. xiv–xv) tion, even after one has solved many of the
The main point here, and one we will see formidable research problems.
Color vision repeated in many of the examples that follow, Walter Freeman is a neuro-biologist who
Humberto Maturana is a biologist by training is that even with rigorous, conventional has been working for many years to study the
who participated in one of the most famous research methods and repeated experiment, olfactory system of rabbits. In order to appre-
pieces of biological research of the 20th cen- the researchers were unable to establish con- ciate his work, consider that conventional

22 Constructivist Foundations
engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

accounts, both popular and professional, ent “directions” – and they

tend to present visual perception (and per- each also stimulate many dif-
ception in general) roughly as follows. Some ferent neurons in many dif-
phenomenon in the world impinges (in the ferent “directions.”
form of a signal) on a sensory-surface con- As noted, the naive model
sisting of receptors. This signal is trans- of perception tends to be one
formed by the receptors into individual neu- of “one-way telegraph trans-
ral signals that are then transmitted (with mission,” so it can be difficult
possible modulations) through a series of to visualize the complex and
relays to some physical brain module for fur- active process described
ther processing. At which point, perhaps, the above. However, having an
result of processing is then relayed sequen- intuitive sense of this process
tially to some motor-neurons. Although the will help the reader under-
majority of work on perception is devoted to stand many other concepts
vision, for our purposes there are some inter- discussed in this paper, so we
esting aspects about the olfactory system. In will try to express all of this in
particular, in mammals there is a single a vastly over-simplified sce-
major intermediary mechanism (the olfac- nario in the style of Rube
tory bulb) between receptor-neurons for Goldberg. Imagine that there
olfaction and the cerebral cortex. One might is a large, flat tent-canvas, sus-
expect then, if there was good neurological pended parallel to the
evidence that brain mirrors world, one would ground; and, higher above the
find it here. canvas, there is a large, flat
Figure 1: Olfactory system (simplified from Freeman
In many, many experiments over the years, mesh. We have, then, two lay-
2001, p. 87, with kind permission of the author)
Freeman and his colleagues have attached ers of “sheets.” There are
electronic sensors to the olfactory system of “cups” of different shapes and
rabbits and conducted extremely well-con- sizes attached upside-down to
trolled tests to measure patterns of neural the bottom of the canvas surface; the different the tubes extending up transmit little ping-
activity. These experiments have attempted to kinds of cups are randomly distributed on the pong balls each time a balloon lands in a cup.
determine such things as regularities in neu- surface, and even the ratios of different kinds The ping-pong balls fly up the tubes and hit
ral responses to different odorants, regulari- of cups are random. Each type of cup corre- the pouches. For every only one of the incom-
ties in the recognition of odorants, and the sponds to a particular type of balloon; if a bal- ing tubes coming from the canvas below, each
effects of learning to recognize new odorants loon of the right size floats into a cup, the bal- pouch has on the order of ten other incoming
on the neural responses to known odorants. loon attaches briefly inside it. An odorant, in tubes attached to it; the other incoming tubes
Before we look at their results and conclu- this analogy, is a collection of balloons of dif- come from other pouches, some of them in
sions, assume that perception works roughly ferent sizes and densities. Two different doses the mesh (“parallel” to it) and some from fur-
as described above and consider some of the of the “same” odorant can have very different ther up (“above”). Thus, each pouch gets hit
conceptual and research challenges. The sen- quantities of balloons – and different ratios of by “incoming” ping-pong balls from below,
sory-surface consists of different types of particular kinds of balloons. Furthermore, from its neighbors in the mesh, and from a
receptors (corresponding to different types two different noses can have different num- wide fan of pouches further up. Similarly,
of molecules) which are randomly distrib- bers of cups, with different proportions of dif- each pouch actually has several thousand out-
uted on the nasal surface in non-uniform ferent kinds of cups in different positions going tubes; these fire ping-pong balls to
concentrations and ratios (which differ from along the surface of the tent. The act of inhal- neighboring pouches in the mesh – and to a
individual to individual). A “single dose” of ing, or bringing the balloons in contact with wide fan of different pouches further up. If
the “same” odorant consists of many differ- the surface cups, results in all these balloons enough balls hit a pouch at the same time,
ent kinds of molecules that impinge upon the bouncing into one another, hitting different then it lights up and sends a ping-pong ball of
sensory-surface in different concentrations, cups at different times with different veloci- its own to every other pouch that is at the end
at different time intervals, with different ties, and even causes the surface of the tent to of its outgoing tubes.
velocities, upon different patterns of sensory- flap and move. The key thing to visualize is that the mesh-
neurons. These receptor-neurons then fire On the top side of the canvas, there are pouches are active most of the time, whether
(at different times, depending on when they tubes, one extending up from the location of there are balls coming up from the tent sur-
are triggered) in parallel to stimulate neurons each cup. Each of these tubes continues up to face or not. Furthermore, even when there are
in the olfactory bulb. At the bulb (and make contact with a pouch, suspended in the balls coming up, most of the balls that hit a
beyond) all the neurons are stimulated by mesh sheet. This mesh, extending widely over pouch at any given moment are from other
many other neurons, firing from many differ- the tent canvas, has many such pouches. And pouches. And, finally, note that, unlike most

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 23

engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

artificial models of neural networks, the firing but rather participates crucially in the gener- Similarly, the myriad variations of different
of the ping-pong balls is not synchronized; ation of perception. Freeman and Skarda experimental parameters – and research
balls are being fired as a vast, irregular pande- provide the best summary of their results and results that are difficult to reconcile with var-
monium of activity. their interpretation of them. ious objectivist interpretations – are fairly
This brief summary glosses over a great “For more than 10 years we tried to say that typical for the kinds of research that have
number of additional complicating details each spatial pattern was like a snapshot, that motivated many enactive cognitive scientists
about the neurology – and it also does not each burst served to represent the odorant to consider radical alternatives to traditional
mention all of the many additional experi- with which we correlated it, and that the pat- paradigms for interpreting their research.
mental and conceptual difficulties; nonethe- tern was like a search image that served to This was the case for Maturana, and it was the
less, even without entertaining radical inter- symbolize the presence or absence of the case, as we will now see, for Eleanor Rosch.
pretations of reality, it should still be clear odorant that the system was looking for. But
that the process of instantly “recognizing a such interpretations were misleading. They Categories, language, and concepts
smell” is vastly more complex than any sim- encouraged us to view neural activity as a The traditional theory of concepts and cate-
ple notion of recovering and accurately pro- function of the features and causal impact of gories has manifested itself in a number of
cessing an obvious and distinct signal. stimuli on the organism and to look for a ways in the history of western philosophy and
In any case, to study how this system gives reflection of the environment within by cor- science. One manifestation is the assumption
rise to “recognizing an odor,” Freeman and relating features of the stimuli with neural that there are “natural kinds” – that is, that the
his colleagues carefully attached an array of activity. This was a mistake. After years of sift- world (nature) is objectively categorized. The
electronic sensors to the nasal bulb of living ing through our data, we identified the prob- related cognitive assumption is that concepts
rabbits to measure the neural responses of lem: it was the concept of representation. mirror those natural categories. Freeman’s
neurons there. They wanted to get readings of “Our research has now revealed the flaws work on the olfactory system is a particular
what happens to an “odorant signal” after the in such interpretations of brain function. example of classification and categorization:
neurons at the sensory-surface have been Neural activity patterns in the olfactory bulb what, operationally, does it mean to recognize
activated. After the sensors were attached, cannot be equated with internal representa- (or classify) an odorant – or for one odorant
they conducted numerous careful experi- tions of particular odorants to the brain for to be “the same” as another? Or, consider the
ments in which they compared patterns of several reasons. First, simply presenting an problem of categories from the various west-
activity in bulb-neurons by using well-con- odorant to the system does not lead to any ern philosophical perspectives sketched ear-
trolled samples of odorants. (Careful readers odor-specific activity patterns being formed. lier. Are colors categories “in the world”
will already notice that this description still Only in motivated animals, that is, only when (light, object-reflectance) or concepts “in the
glosses over many issues about actual cogni- the odorant is reinforced leading to a behav- head” (receptors, internal processing mecha-
tion, such as the fact that olfaction “in the ioral change, do these stereotypical patterns nisms)? Are colors universal categories of the
wild” does not have the benefit of odorants of neural activity take shape. Second, odor- world, universal (abstract) concepts of the
distilled to some acceptable degree of purity specific activity patterns are dependent on the mind, or are they personally or culturally rel-
or consistency for purposes of comparison.) behavioral response; when we change the ative?
In terms of the Rube Goldberg scenario, Free- reinforcement contingency of a [conditioned The cognitive equivalent of categories are
man and his colleagues were basically study- response] we change the patterned activity. concepts, and as Eleanor Rosch so bluntly
ing the activity of the pouches in the mesh; Third, patterned neural activity is context puts it, “If ever there was a domain where
and the different overall patterns as different dependent: the introduction of a new rein- you’d think cognitivism could get it right, it
pouches light up in different spatial and tem- forced odorant to the animal’s repertoire is concepts” (Rosch 1999, p. 61). Rosch is a
poral patterns. They were trying to deter- leads to changes in the patterns associated psychologist who, together with her col-
mine whether and how the patterns correlate with all previously learned odorants. Taken leagues, is widely credited with revolutioniz-
(in some way) with (some reasonable together these facts teach us that we who have ing the study of concepts in cognitive science
abstraction of) an odorant – and how/ looked at activity patterns as internal repre- through a pioneering, systematic, large-scale,
whether any of this correlates with the rab- sentations of events have misinterpreted the long-term, cross-cultural research effort
bit’s experience of “recognizing that smell.” As data. Our findings indicate that patterned devoted to concepts, categorization, and lan-
a result of this work, Freeman and his col- neural activity correlates best with reliable guage. Through her research, she has
leagues have managed to get reasonable read- forms of interaction in a context that is behav- amassed enormous evidence to suggest that
ings and develop a mathematical model. The iorally and environmentally co-defined…” cognitivism does not “get it right” when it
technical details are beyond the scope of this (Freeman & Skarda 1990, p. 376) comes to concepts, and one of her interpreta-
paper, but they include dynamic topographi- We have spent some time on the details of tions of her results is that, given some of cog-
cal maps of chaotic (in the technical sense) this for a couple of reasons. First, it provides nitivism’s assumptions, it may not even be
activity of olfactory neurons. This chaotic more textured insight into the kinds of exper- able to get it right (for more detailed summa-
activity is both necessary for healthy brain imental challenges Freeman and other ries of this research and its implications, see,
functioning – and, more surprisingly, it is not researchers have faced; the point is that they e.g., Rosch 1999, Lakoff 1987, Rosch & Lloyd
“noise that distorts the signal” of perception, did not shift orientation because it was “easy.” 1978).

24 Constructivist Foundations
engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

What are some of the cognitivist assump- from the particular “physical realization of terms. Her results showed broad similarity to
tions about concepts and categories – and the knower” (e.g., embodiment). By this view, the recall and identifications made by people
what does her research show? human knowledge “inherits” the abstract, in other cultures with other linguistic-terms
rational, conceptual taxonomies – rather for colors. That is, each language had focal col-
Concepts as abstract universals . The classical, than, say, those taxonomies being constructs ors that were broadly similar across cultures;
abstract model of concepts and categories is based on human experiences (such as having and members of different linguistic groups
strongly influenced by formal logic. In bodies, taking physical actions in a world, and identified the same focal colors, even when
essence, it claims that categories have two the like). The abstract view even informs the they were using invented color-term vocabu-
basic characteristics: categories have clear and work of some constructivists, particularly laries.
distinct boundaries – and “membership” in a Piagetians who have studied the development
category is based on necessary and sufficient of various logical understandings in children. Concepts as categories in the world . If color-
“shared features.” In Rosch’s work, she has Rosch’s research has demonstrated serious concepts are not abstract universals, nor rela-
shown significant exceptions to these require- flaws with each of these assumptions and con- tive to individual or cultural experience,
ments – and to virtually all of the major clusions. Indeed, her work strongly suggests could they be derived from universal catego-
entailments of such assumptions. Thus, she that concepts and categories must arise out of ries in the world? In fact, the vast cultural dif-
has shown that the boundaries of categories particular experience (as Piagetians might ference about color-terms and color-classifi-
are not always well-defined, there are “degrees argue) – but that if children are asked to per- cation models suggest that this hypothesis is
of membership,” and that there are “best form classification tests relative to basic-level already problematic. To the extent that there
examples” for categories (about which there is categories (rather than the more typical seems to be anything universal about color
wide consensus). To give a specific example, abstract, formal categories of Piagetian exper- concepts, it seems to be at the level of, say, cog-
consider the last point. In some of her work iments), their performance and understand- nitive schema, rather than universal features
she demonstrated that people have a notion of ing is much richer and more sophisticated of an objective world.
a “best” example of a category, such as the than indicated by many of the results on clas-
color red. But, as Rosch argued, if the classical sification in the Piagetian literature. Concepts in the mind . Finally, although con-
model of categories is correct, then any mem- One of the most important consequences cepts may not be abstract universals of the
ber of a category (that is, any member that is of this aspect of Rosch’s research is that it puts mind, couldn’t they be the result of individual
a member by virtue of having the same fea- into serious question any claim that humans cognitive processes in some social, cultural, or
tures as another member) should be as good start with classical taxonomies upon which linguistic context? This is a variation on the
a category-example as any other member of are placed additional constraints. By this relativistic argument and one related cogni-
the category. view, infants would start with such abstract tive hypothesis is the Whorf-Sapir claim that
A further entailment of classical theory is taxonomies and additional mechanisms; “language limits thought”; by this view, the
that taxonomic systems of categories consist Rosch’s work makes a compelling case that linguistic terms for colors would limit the for-
of abstract, universal, hierarchical structures. humans start with basic-level categorization, mation of color concepts. Rosch was able to
That is, there are universal concepts (such as and that the more abstract and general classi- show, for example, that even in languages that
“object”), some are more general than others fication schemes come later, both temporally only have two words for different colors, the
(“object” is more general than “tree”), and and in terms of derivation. native speakers were able to describe, indicate,
that these concepts existing in an unchanging, and remember a wider range of color concepts.
hierarchical relationship to each other. Fur- Concepts as telative or unconstrained. If con- They were even able to learn and use new,
ther, these abstract categories are universal, cepts and categories are not abstract univer- invented color-term vocabularies with more
rather than specific to human experience. sals, could they then be “relative” (to personal terms in them. And, as noted above, the per-
Rosch showed that cognition relies crucially experience or cultural contexts)? There are, formance of subjects working with invented
on other taxonomic structures, that human for example, significant cultural differences in color-term vocabularies was broadly similar
concepts are very dependent on human expe- the linguistic terms used for colors, the num- to the performance of subjects from other
rience (a “table” is a concept that only makes ber of color-terms (some languages, for exam- cultures using their native languages (or other
sense relative to the human activity of using ple, designate all colors with just two terms), invented color-term vocabularies). In other
tables), and that although there is cross-cul- and the like. Indeed, because of this, some words, in certain essential ways, the limited
tural agreement about what she, following researchers have made various claims that nature of certain native color-vocabularies
Berlin and Kay (1969, Brown 1958), calls concepts must be relativistic. However, did did not prevent the identification of a
basic-level categories, these are closer to the Rosch’s work on both prototype effects and larger set of basic-color concepts, nor prevent
schemas of Kant than to pre-existing catego- basic-level effects raises serious questions the learning of new color-vocabularies with
ries in the world or abstract universal con- about all of these relativistic assumptions and different structures, nor seem to correlate
cepts in the mind. claims. For example, but she conducted with performance in remembering or identi-
Finally, one of the strong assumptions of experiments in which she compared such fying basic-level terms in any of the vocabu-
this abstract notion of concepts is that it things as recall and identification of “best laries. The main correlations in all cases
asserts a model of knowledge that is separate examples” for different sets of invented color- seemed to be at the basic-level.

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As a result of her research, she has come (that is, they respond only to surface stimula- Research themes
more and more to the conclusion that catego- tion and relay electrical signals on to a differ-
ries are not pre-given in some objective world, ent “layer” of neurons) – the neurons at that We propose as a name enactive to emphasize
they are not pre-given universal cognitive secondary layer receive something on the the growing conviction that cognition is not the
concepts, and they are not purely individual, order of 80% of their neural signals from other representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven
cultural, or relativistic. Rosch herself neurons “within” the organism (Churchland & mind but is rather the enactment of a world and
expresses this quite eloquently, Sejnowski 1992, Singer 1980). In other words, a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of
“Because concepts and categorizations neurons at this layer (and most “subsequent” actions that a being in the world performs
play a vital role in bridging the mind-world layers) do not act as “telegraph stations” in a – Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 9
unit and in revealing situational contexts, one-way relay from outside to inside, but
they may be able to provide a point of entry more like “polling stations” with contribu- The examples of research from the previous
for the study of situations. Instead of asking tions from all their neighbors, and the results section have a distinctly biological flavor, but,
how categories can be universal or how con- of such polls do not move in a single direction as indicated earlier, the discipline is con-
cepts can represent an external world in an along some path from outer to inner. This cerned with a broad range of cognitive phe-
internal mind, we could ask where categories does not even take into account that there are nomena. In their own work, Varela, Thomp-
and category-systems come from in the first many other kinds of neuronal interactions – son, and Rosch were particularly interested in
place? … When mind and world are consid- chemical releases, and the like – that may be the development of methods for studying and
ered separate, causal or explanatory efficacy is more cognitively relevant or significant. To understanding first-person cognition (“con-
attributed either to the mind or the world. put it in the starkest possible terms, it seems sciousness”), so that aspect has been further
Happenings in the world may be considered that most perception-based neural activity is developed in the years since then. Similarly,
stimuli to which the organism or person the result of processes that “spread outward” there is now a more encompassing emphasis
responds, or the mind or person may be seen rather than “proceed inward.” on social aspects of cognition. Much of this
as the source of desires, intentions, theories, Thus, even without entertaining radical was implicit in their original proposal, but as
or actions on the things of the world. Polariza- new paradigms of interpretation, conven- they themselves acknowledged, at the time
tion of these extremes leads to theories and tional neuroscience needs to develop some they were simply trying to sketch the broad
research programmes which go in and out of plausible explanation of how this relates to outlines of an emerging discipline. At this
fashion, but which do not progress. At best the “perceiving things in the world.” It is impor- point, we can say that a number of distinctive
mind and world will be said to interact. The tant to note that this observation is not con- research themes can be identified as central to
new view requires rethinking how we want to troversial; if anything, it is simply not enactive cognitive science.
model causality and prediction altogether. acknowledged in most conventional texts. To [ Umwelt, embodiment, and situated action
Mind and world occur together in a succes- the extent that it is acknowledged, the typical [ Autonomy, change, and creativity
sion of situations which are somewhat lawful response tends to consist of quickly mention- [ Groundlessness, non-correspondence,
and predictable. We want to be able to find ing it and then continuing with cognitivist and viability
those laws and to find a level of description “proposals as usual.” The assumption seems [ Emergence and self-organization
which neither turns human actions into to be that someone else will solve this problem [ Consciousness and first-person cognition
something mechanical like engineering nor in a way that is compatible with conventional [ Social cognition and intersubjectivity
something mental like fantasy.” (Rosch 1999, cognitivist models of perception (e.g., per- [ Co-enaction
pp. 74–75) haps by showing that different classes of neu- The remainder of this part of the paper –
For Rosch then, as for Maturana and Free- rons have different significance in the trans- borrowing freely from (Varela 1999b, Varela,
man, it is very difficult to account for the mission and recovery of percepts). Thompson & Rosch 1991) – provides a more
research results in traditional objectivist, sub- As noted earlier, Maturana, Rosch, and detailed examination of these enactivist
jectivist, or relativistic terms. Freeman started with conventional assump- research themes. In reading about the research
tions, pursued their research along conven- themes, it will also help to have some guiding
Visual perception tional lines, and arrived at similar impasses idea of co-enaction, a concept that is significant
To conclude this brief survey of cognitive phe- when they tried to reconcile their research in virtually all aspects of enactive research and
nomena that challenge cognitivist models of results with conventional, objectivist inter- thought, but not always highlighted as such
cognition, we turn to research on the architec- pretations. In each case, they concluded that (although, see Varela 1999b). This concept
ture of the visual system. something was required other than tradi- emphasizes that the shift to an enactive per-
We have already encountered problems tional models of genetic/environmental spective does not involve a simple change from
with the conventional model of perception- determinism and the long-held western alter- one absolute frame of reference to another
as-recovery in the description of Freeman’s natives of objectivism, subjectivism, relativ- (e.g., internal to external, individual to social,
work above. But there is a more startling chal- ism, and solipsism. In many cases, the partic- physical to linguistic, etc.). Rather, the shift is
lenge to the conventional transmission ular research themes of enactive cognitive to a perspective of co-specification and co-
model. Namely, that although most sensory- science have arisen out of similar research determination. Susan Oyama (2000a, p. 180)
neurons are not stimulated by other neurons impasses. expresses this succinctly when she writes,

26 Constructivist Foundations
engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

“‘Natural’ biological persons are con- try, physics, and rocks, they perpetuate a the importance of embodiment (see Ander-
structed, not only in the sense that they are severely distorted view. Life actually makes son 2003 for an overview). Much of this work
actively construed by themselves and others, and forms and changes the environment to even references Rosch as a positive influence,
but also in the sense that they are, at every which it adapts. Then that “environment” interpreting her results in ways that she her-
moment, products of, and participants in, feeds back on the life that is changing and act- self does not. The perspective of many
ongoing developmental processes.” ing and growing in it. There are constant researchers who now champion embodiment
This shift to co-enaction raises a number cyclical interactions.” (Margulis 1989) tends to focus on what they see as the funda-
of methodological issues, so after looking at It also suggests one of the many reasons mental problem of abstract models in cogni-
the other research themes, we will treat it last, that researchers in this tradition have turned tivism: the assumption of an independent
where it will serve also as a bridge to the sec- to philosophers such as Heidegger, with his objective world leads to problems “ground-
ond part of the paper. emphasis on being-in-the-world as a funda- ing” symbols in that world, e.g., (Harnad
mental unit, rather than separate subjects and 1990). Their alternative is to develop embod-
Umwelt, embodiment, and objects (Heidegger 1962). In many ways, the ied models, where sensory inputs and motor
situated action notion of an interpenetration of being and outputs play an important part in the cogni-
This insistence on the codetermination or mutual world goes back at least to Berkeley and Kant. tive processing. Another alternative being
specification of organism and environment should One way it has manifested in cognitive science explored is to try and do away with internal
not be confused with the more commonplace is in Dewey’s (1896) proposal for a sensorim- mediating mechanisms altogether – and
view that different perceiving organisms simply otor model of biological functioning which focus on models of “direct perception” or var-
have different perspectives on the world was further elaborated as a foundational con- ious behavior-based approaches in which the
– Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 202 cept for Piaget's theory. A similar concept environment functions as “its own represen-
appears in proposals for cognitive models by tation.” (For an overview of much of the
Objectivist models of cognition tend to start different researchers, such as Merleau-Ponty recent work on robotics, see Pfeifer & Scheier
from the assumption of an independent cog- (1963), Gregory Bateson (1979), Heinz von 1999.) Notice that none of this requires any
nizing agent recovering aspects of an inde- Foerster (1984), and Kurt Lewin in his argu- radical reorientation away from objectivism,
pendently-existing world – and then using ments for understanding human cognition in and in many cases there is no such reorienta-
some body-independent, universal rules to terms of a “life field,” e.g., “the person and his tion.
reason about it. A central concept of enactive environment have to be considered as one But the enactive emphasis on embodiment
cognitive science, on the other hand, is the constellation of interdependent factors” is more than a physicalist assertion about per-
Umwelt, or the integration of agent and its (Lewin 1946, p. 793). ception and motor activity. Rather it is about
world that manifests itself in a lived-world. A key set of issues, then, involves the study how worlds are enacted, how those worlds are
This term was first used in this way by the of how biology, personal history, and the for individuals, and how they relate to
biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who was trying environment as it is for the organism co-spec- embodiment. The key point for enactive cog-
to distinguish between the world (or niche) as ify each other; how they co-adapt and co- nitive science is that the Umwelt is enacted
it is for the organism and some alternative, evolve. Relevant work spans every scale of rather than given, independently existing, and
objective world: “all that a subject perceives biological phenomena, from the structural directly accessible.
becomes his perceptual world and all that he coupling of biological cells (Maturana 1980a) As we will see below, this concept of the
does, his effector world. Perceptual and effec- to cell-assemblies (Edelman 1992) to multi- Umwelt has a number of consequences, not
tor worlds together form a closed unit, the cellular organisms (Freeman 2001) to popu- least for the notion of whether/how a cogni-
Umwelt” (Uexküll 1957, p. 6). The main point lations of organisms (Lewontin 2000); it also tive being “recovers” the world. To take one
is that cognitive agents do not live in or expe- raises serious questions about realist interpre- example, the issue of cognitive activity can
rience some abstract definition of an objective tations of natural selection as “optimization” look very different from an enactive perspec-
world, but a particular world. And that world (e.g., Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, chap. tive. The emphasis on cognitive activity has
is variously related to the physical embodi- 9); and it challenges realist versions of co- been an essential focus for constructivist
ment (sensors and effectors), personal his- adaptation (e.g., Lumsden & Wilson 1981), models of cognition, e.g., Dewey (1896), Gru-
tory, cultural contexts, and the like. Thus, for where attempts are made to resolve the debate ber & Voneche (1977), Mead (1934), Vygotsky
example, we may see different species occupy- over genetic versus environmental determin- (1978), Leont’ev (1978), Luria (1976). More
ing the same part of a physical environment, ism by simply proposing that cognition is recent formulations tend to emphasize situ-
but from the perspective of their biology and some propitious “mix of the two” (for partic- ated action which involves a shift of perspec-
their behavior, the Umwelt of each species can ularly lucid and rigorous critiques of these tive from abstract, general (albeit, possibly
be almost entirely non-overlapping. attempts, and the entire “nature versus nur- active) models of cognition to models that
More recently, this notion is echoed in ture” impasse, see the work of Susan Oyama involve moment-by-moment pragmatic
descriptions of biological phenomena at 2000a, 2000b). (James 1907, Dewey 1916) coping and adapt-
varying scales. Just as there are objectivist versions of con- ing. As a result, researchers have started to
“…when scientists tell us that life adapts to structivism, there is much work in cognitiv- describe such situated (cognitive) activity in
an essentially passive environment of chemis- ism (especially robotics) that is arguing for such terms as readiness-to-hand (Heidegger

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engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

1962), “tinkering” (or bricolage) (Papert work “unattended.” It is this sense that gave highlighting these distinctions – and high-
1980), and improvisation (Agre & Chapman impetus to the early technical developments lighting some of the potential risks of cogni-
1990). However, as with many of the key of cybernetics (Wiener 1948; Ashby 1956). A tive science fooling itself with “wishful attri-
terms, it is used to variously emphasize every- separate, though related use, is where the goal bution” if new terms such as embodiment are
thing from non-planned action (Suchman is develop a robot that can “arrive at its own used without actually changing any of its epis-
1987) to social situatedness (Clancey 1995) conclusions, decisions, and actions.” This temological commitments. Nonetheless, as
(see Chaiklin & Lave 1993 for a discussion). meaning is closer to our everyday use when we will see in part two of this paper, it is not
For the enactive tradition, situated action we say that we expect most children to grow always clear how and to what extent such
is partly concerned with action rather than into adults who are autonomous. Although enactive understanding translates into actual
“passive reception” or “imprinting” – and this second meaning sketches a connection to research or implementation choices.
partly concerned with situated coping rather cognitive models, it is important to realize The issue of autonomy raises, by exten-
than with, say, general rules. But it is also con- that most work in robotics is not devoting any sion, the issues of cognitive change and cre-
cerned with more than simply “actively cop- major effort to model something approxi- ativity. Again, the standard view inherited
ing” with an objectively-existing and dynamic mating human autonomy (in fact, many in from physics is that both change and novelty
world; the bigger issue is how such situated the field would deny that autonomy, in the are illusions. Although these are early days
activity participates in the enactment of a life- everyday sense, is even meaningful within the yet, the enactive claim is that genuine change
world. framework of conventional, deterministic and creativity can be made reasonably rigor-
“[‘Natural’ biological persons] are not science). Typically, this second use of auton- ous, rather than, say, being an alternative way
self-determining in any simple sense, but they omy is to indicate that there are conditions for to talk about limited knowledge or predictabil-
affect and “select” influences on themselves by which the robot cannot be pre-programmed, ity (e.g., chaos theory). In the second part of
attending to and interpreting stimuli, by seek- so various techniques have to be implemented this paper we will look at several proposals for
ing environments and companions, by being that will allow it to adapt, succeed, and survive possible formalisms, mechanisms, and mod-
differentially susceptible to various factors, by “on its own.” Thus, even when work on robot- els of innovation, e.g., dissipative structures
evoking reactions from others.” (Oyama ics includes a short “statement of belief ” that (Prigogine & Stengers 1984), symbiosis (Mar-
2000a, pp. 180–181) robot implementations need to be “freed” of gulis & Fester 1991), autopoiesis (Maturana &
Lave and Wenger (1991), in their discus- the intentions of their designers (Pfeifer & Varela 1980), a schema mechanism (Drescher
sion of situated action, propose a perspective Scheier 1999), it is typically in this sense of 1991), dynamical systems models (Thelen &
that is quite resonant with the concerns of autonomy and freedom. Smith 1994), and self-organization (Kauff-
enactive cognitive science as described here; Within enactive cognitive science, how- man 1993).
we will return to this in the section on social ever, a central tenet is that cognition involves
cognition below. Now, we turn to the issue of some substantive degree of autonomy; the Groundlessness,
deliberate autonomous action – and the claim is that cognitive agents are not just buf- non-correspondence, and viability
related issues of cognitive change and novelty. feted by the twin forces of “nature versus nur- “The worlds enacted by various histories of struc-
ture” (nor do they simply “vanish” at the tural coupling are amenable to detailed scientific
Autonomy, change, and creativity intersection of such forces). Piaget, for exam- investigation, yet have no fixed, permanent sub-
“…autonomous systems stand in sharp contrast ple, is perhaps most explicit in his attempt to strate or foundation and so are ultimately ground-
to systems whose coupling with the environment address it with his claim that development less – Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 217
is specified through input/output relations. …the involves a progressive “liberation” from sen-
meaning of this or that interaction for a living sys- sory-perception; in a larger sense, it seems to Classical objectivist models of epistemology
tem is not prescribed from outside but is the result inform his entire research, as when he repeat- tend to focus on aspects of knowledge related
of the organization and history of the system itself edly asserts that his model is neither environ- to Truth; that is, whether some knowledge is
– Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 157 mental nor genetic determinism. We will look correct in its correspondence to what is True,
more closely at this topic in the second part of how one can verify such correspondence, and
The concept of autonomy is largely absent this paper when we consider some of the the like. The influence of this tradition is felt
from the physical sciences – and to the extent mechanisms proposed to explain and model in many of the guiding assumptions of objec-
that cognitivism has followed this, it has various aspects of enactive cognition. tivist science, with its attempt to identify the
largely treated autonomy as an illusion or Certain robotics research seems informed ultimate elements of objective, material real-
epiphenomenon. The issue of autonomy has by a perspective that is quite close to the enac- ity – or to understand cognition by various
entered certain kinds of work in cognitive sci- tive notion of autonomy. In their discussion models of correspondence between mind and
ence, particularly work on autonomous of Umwelt, for example, Sharkey and Ziemke world. Correspondence models of cognition
robots and agents inspired by the cybernetics clearly articulate a distinction about how cur- tend to focus on the level of perception or
tradition. It is important, however, to clarify rent robots may “be physically grounded but concepts. At the level of perception, the prob-
what is actually at stake for the different kinds …not rooted in their own world; they are lem is treated as: “how does sense-perception
of research. For much of the work in robotics, moving objects in our world” (Sharkey & retrieve raw sensory-data” (which leaves as a
the goal is simply to develop a device that can Ziemke 1998, p. 384). They are exemplary in problem how that sense-data is transformed

28 Constructivist Foundations
engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

into “what we experience”); the work of Mat- and mechanisms of cognition, but we will see include spatial and temporal relationships.
urana and Freeman, sketched earlier, talks to some of the relevant issues in the next section There is thus a shift to the analysis and
this. The second approach is to develop some on emergence and self-organization. description of how systems are organized. For
model for how concepts (in the head) corre- physical or chemical systems, this may involve
spond to natural categories (in the world); the Emergence and self-organization various auto-catalytic (Prigogine & Stengers
work of Rosch raises serious questions about Cognition is enactively emergent co-determina- 1984, Eigen & Schuster 1979) or synergetic
that alternative. tion of neural elements (local) and cognitive sub- effects (Haken 1987); for cognitive systems, it
In keeping with the radical constructivist ject (global) – Varela 1999a, p. 81 can involve how such organizational relation-
claim that human cognition has no access to ships are maintained (or change) over time
an objective reality, the models and explana- Traditionally, science has tended towards (Maturana & Varela 1980, Bateson 1979). One
tions of enactive cognitive science do not models of linear causality. With the rise of sta- consequence of this emphasis on emergent
assume ultimate foundations – and the mod- tistical mechanics and computational-based phenomena is that, in addition to such forces
eled systems do not rely on correspondence. approaches to science, a number of phenom- as genetic unfolding, environmental influ-
“It is clear that the notion of information pre- ena gained prominence (e.g., probability, ences (“selection”), and the like, there have
existing in the world must be rejected” (Reeke concurrency, emergence, and the like). been substantive proposals for various self-
& Edelman 1988). By this view, cognitive Within objectivist approaches to cognition, organizing models and mechanisms (von Foe-
agents are not successful by virtue of their the study and modeling of emergent systems is rster & Zopf 1962).
access to an independent reality, nor do they often concerned with how surprising and More recently, there is growing emphasis
operate upon more or less accurate represen- complex results can emerge as a result of spec- on co-emergence. Prigogine, for example, in
tations (or models) of such a reality, nor could ifying and running simple rules – or, how cen- discussing his work on dissipative systems,
they even have such access. A major assump- tralized results can be produced by decentral- writes “[there is not] any fundamental mode
tion, then, is that although cognition is con- ized activities. A related sense of emergence, of description; each level of description is
strained and viable, it is largely provisional. one more common in disciplines influenced implied by another and implies the other. We
Concepts and categories and mind and world by systems theory, is that higher-level phe- need a multiplicity of levels that are all con-
change – sometimes in ways we barely notice, nomena can emerge (as “epiphenomena”) nected, none of which may have a claim to
and other times in ways that are radical reori- out of the interactions between lower-level preeminence” (Prigogine & Stengers 1984,
entations. By this view, theories and models entities (e.g., Holland 1998). p. 300). Indeed, a wide variety of researchers
are not provisional because “we have yet more This second sense is close to the concerns and theorists have argued for a new model of
to learn about the full Truth,” but the pro- informing certain kinds of work in enactive reductionism (Fodor 1975; Churchland &
cesses that give rise to the viable regularities of cognitive science. By this view, although Sejnowski 1992; Thelen & Smith 1994), where
our world also enact the challenges and dis- macro-phenomena emerge out of the micro- the notion of explaining a “level” of some
crepancies we experience (in our theories and scale, they are not entirely reducible to it; the phenomenon does not proceed simply by ref-
our experiences). For many, this rejection of macro-level has certain characteristics and erence to the next lower level. Thelen and
absolute foundations tends to raise concerns regularities specific to it. (For brief history of Smith, for example, express the co-emergent
about relativism. But, as Mark Johnson notes, this version of the concept, see O’Connor & perspective in their lucid phrase, “the power
“…this fear of relativism is predicated upon a Wong 2005). In some cases, this is expressed of explanation is the dynamics of the pro-
false assumption about the nature of objectiv- in terms of the macro-level constraining the cesses, in the view from below examined from
ity – that either we have absolute foundations, micro-level (Pattee 1973, Freeman 2001), in above. The explanatory power is the joint con-
or there are not foundations of any sort what- other cases, the claim is that the macro may sideration of the micro- and macrolevels”
ever” (Johnson 1987, pp. 199–200). also have causal efficacy upon the micro (out (Thelen & Smith 1994, p. 39). In this spirit,
Note that the turn away from ultimate of which it emerges) (Martinerie et al. 1998; one recent, co-enactive proposal for a neuro-
grounds and correspondence is not based van Quyen et al. 1997). In either case, the logically-based hypotheses about perception
solely on a critique of objectivist attempts to claims such as, e.g., “wholes are not the simple is Skarda (1999).
discover ultimate material foundations or ref- sum of their parts” (Lazlo 1972, p. 28), should A related phenomenon is visible in the case
erents. This point is not always so clear, since be resonant for phenomenologists who argue of multi-cellulars: replacement emergence.
some theorists critical of assumptions about that is not meaningful to discuss “properties” That is, the cells that constitute bodies are
ultimate physical grounding have proposed (in the abstract) separate from the particular constantly being replaced. So, it is not just
alternative “ultimate” grounds, such as soci- whole that is of concern. remarkable that coherent and enduring bod-
ety, language, activity, interaction, conscious- One of the key claims of structuralism, ies emerge out of these dynamic parts – but
ness, or experience. Such a substitution, of Gestalt psychology (Köhler 1992), general that the experience/perception of wholeness
one ultimate ground for another, is not the systems theory (Bertalanffy 1968, Lazlo and continuity exists at all. This is a variation
proposal made by enactive cognitive science. 1972), and the more recent “sciences of com- on the perception of continuity when watch-
Rather, the turn is to models and mechanisms plexity” (Kauffman 1993), is that it is not ing a sequence of frames of a film; but in the
of viability. We will examine this topic more enough to consider constituent elements and case of cognitive replacement, it is ourselves,
closely in the part devoted to possible models their causal influences, one needs to also our bodies, our fleeting thoughts, impres-

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 29

engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

sions, and emotions that somehow enact and Studies; and for a collection of articles repre- tion” that does not seem to be constructivist –
maintain some sense of a unified and endur- senting the diversity of approaches being realist or otherwise – in the epistemological
ing self. We now turn to examine this issue of explored, along with peer-commentary and sense considered in this paper. Such work
consciousness and self-awareness more critiques, see Varela & Shear 1999). Such work tends to concentrate on such things as how
closely. attempts to address such issues as whether “culture, constituted of tools, artifacts, and
consciousness can be studied scientifically, ways of thought, …carries the past history of
Consciousness and how such research can proceed, what consti- a society into the present, thereby both
first-person cognition tute “results” of such research, the degree to enabling and constraining current thinking”
…if cognitive science is to include human experi- which such results can be shared, possible (Resnick 1991, p. 18).
ence, it must have some method for exploring and applications of such research (e.g., therapy), When we turn to the constructivist tradi-
knowing what human experience is and the like. tion, we encounter what is perhaps its most
– Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 23 Unfortunately, certain aspects of this issue vexing and heated controversy: the debate
has informed much of the critical reaction to about “individual” versus “social” construc-
Standard accounts in psychology texts tend to enactive cognitive science. When Varela et. al. tion. The debate is complex and turns on a
assert that studies of consciousness (and the proposed enactive cognitive science in their number of different assumptions and varia-
use of introspective methods) were aban- book, The Embodied Mind, they did so by tions on the general theme of whether society
doned as unscientific at the end of the 19th describing one possible approach to the study derives from individuals – or whether indi-
century – and that twentieth century psychol- of consciousness and first-person experience, viduals (and individual cognition) derive
ogy had little to say about either conscious- namely methods and insights from Buddhist from the social. One curious feature of this
ness as some extra-physical mental phenom- meditation and epistemology – and also by otherwise constructivist debate is that each
enon (“awareness”) or consciousness as the suggesting ways in which contemporary west- side seems to feel they are providing a “correc-
experience of what it is to actually taste an ern cognitive science could inform Buddhist tive” for the excessive subjectivist/objectivist
apple or see the color blue (“first-person epistemology. Much otherwise careful com- tendencies of the other. That is, much of social
experience”). This version of history, how- mentary on the book seems to have not inter- constructivism’s critique of individual con-
ever, glosses over a number of substantial preted the portions devoted to Buddhism as structivism seems to turn on the claim that
contributions to both theory and study of an extended example; instead, comments individual-oriented constructivism is pro-
consciousness during this same period (e.g., have tended towards dismissing this aspect of posing a mode of cognition happening “in the
Vygotsky 1979). Phenomenology, for exam- the book as championing some form of east- head”; by this social constructive view, then,
ple, was developed as a philosophy of lived ern mysticism. individual constructivism is perceived as
experience (Husserl 1962, Heidegger 1962) The topic of consciousness not only raises something close to subjectivism. On the other
and also formed the basis of cognitive problems of method for its study, the role of hand, proponents of individual constructiv-
research, e.g., (Merleau-Ponty 1963). And consciousness raises questions of method for ism often criticize the work of social construc-
this notion of lived experience informs much cognitive science. The role of the observer, for tivism as being too realist in its model of
of the enactive concern with Umwelt – with example, has raised the familiar constructivist “transmission” between society and individ-
the phenomenal world. critique, “objectivity is the delusion that ual, as if the “society” now stands as a substi-
As a number of commentators (e.g., observations could be made without an tute for The World and individuals somehow
Skarda 1999) have noted, the majority of observer” (Foerster, quoted in Glasersfeld have direct access to it.
research in both neuroscience and psychology 1995). Taken seriously, the role of the Although a detailed discussion of this
still tends to avoid the question of how per- observer raises a number of challenging issues debate is beyond the scope of this paper, we
cepts are transformed into experience. This in most of contemporary science. This is per- will return to aspects of this topic in the sec-
issue is independent of whether or not one is haps most widely-known in the context of ond part when we highlight some of the
a realist – indeed, it may be more challenging quantum mechanics, but we will return to research methods, interpretations of research
for realist research that assumes, say, some this topic of the observer, and its possible results, and proposals for cognitive mecha-
objective light-signals are transformed into implications for method in cognitive science, nisms and models. For now, this debate may
the colors of the phenomenal experience. in the second part of this paper (but see, e.g., help to highlight the enactive perspective,
Indeed, attempts to explain color perception Maturana 1988). namely that the individual and social are co-
and experience in terms of objective proper- enacted. This perspective is present to varying
ties of light, materials, or biological mecha- Social cognition & intersubjectivity degrees in much of the founding thought on
nisms are famously problematic. (For a thor- …intelligence shifts from being the capacity to social cognition (Dewey 1900, Mead 1934,
ough analysis of all the different attempts to solve a problem to the capacity to enter into a Vygotsky 1978, Heidegger 1962). However,
resolve this in the area of color-perception, see shared world of significance there are at least two aspects of social con-
Thompson 1995). – Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 207 structivism that are important to highlight in
In recent years, there has been a steady this context: internalization and precedence.
resurgence of interest and study of the topic As with each of the concerns described here, As Lave and Wenger note (1991, pp. 47–
(see, for example, the Journal of Consciousness there is cognitive research on “social cogni- 49), the issue of “internalization” is the source

30 Constructivist Foundations
engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

of a number of interpretations, ranging from ated action, which “dissolves dichotomies sciousness and the particular form of “lan-
the overtly objectivist (“transmission mod- between contemplation and involvement, guaging” of humans proposed by Maturana
els”) to more textured, relational models. It is between abstraction and experience: persons, and Varela is one that is deeply intertwined
not always clear, for example, which version actions, and the world are implicated in all with the social. By this view, without such
of internalization Mead is proposing. In thought, speech, knowing, and learning” social co-enaction, the human consciousness
much of his work, he seems clearly to be say- (Lave & Wenger 1991, p. 52). of consciousness is not possible.
ing that individuals become individuals by For enactive cognitive science, individuals Intersubjectivity as formulated by enactive
absorbing the social – and for Mead, the as individuals arise via the social – and vice theory is particularly complex and subtle, but
means for this is through social gestures (and versa. To explain this, we can contrast non- one of the main points is that “the minds of
presumably, a model of perception that is radical with radical versions of social con- others” are no more “separate and indepen-
largely realist). In other cases, he seems to be structivism. For non-radical social construc- dent” than is the world, social or otherwise,
wrestling to express something close to the tivism, human society is the dominant envi- that co-arises with the individual. In a sense,
more contemporary view from enactive cog- ronment into which infants are born; this is for enactive cognitive science, intersubjectiv-
nitive science, e.g., “No individual has a mind sometimes presented as a variation on the ity arises naturally out of co-enaction, where
which operates simply in itself, in isolation work of Piaget, whose model is described (in “interactions between people are codepen-
from the social life-process in which it has this context) as one in which children interact dently defined, experienced, and acted out”
arisen or out of which it has emerged” (Mead with objects in the world, rather than within (Rosch 1999, p. 72). We now turn to this last
1934, p. 222). social contexts. By this non-radical view of major research theme.
The case of Vygotsky and the other Soviet social constructivism, then, the world of the
constructivists (e.g., Vygotsky 1978, Leont’ev child is largely social, and it is within that Co-enaction
1978, Luria 1976) is even less clear – and this social world that active cognitive construc- …knower and known, mind and world, stand in
is partly due to their subsequent commenta- tion takes place. A more radical version of relation to each other through mutual specifica-
tors and interpreters. (Indeed, the issue of social constructivism is one that emphasizes tion or dependent coorigination – Varela, Thomp-
“internalization” is equally unclear in the the co-enaction of individual and society; son & Rosch 1991, p. 150
Piagetian tradition – and for many of the human consciousness and language as such
same reasons.) Certainly, some contempo- only arise out of this co-enaction at the social As suggested earlier, the history of objectivist
rary social constructivists invoke the Soviet scale. science is deeply informed by the idea of ulti-
constructivists in the same breath as Mead Before ending this section, we will briefly mate foundations or causes. We thus see many
and the pragmatists – and present them as address the issue of intersubjectivity, or, how hypotheses and descriptions presented rela-
having largely the same epistemological ori- we seem to know what thoughts or feelings tive to some assumed absolute frame of refer-
entation. Others (e.g., Wertsch 1991) present are in the minds of others. This issue presents ence. The move to enactive cognitive science
such work in a way that is closer to the “mutu- a theoretical challenge to much of cognitiv- is stronger, and more radical, than some sim-
ally constitutive” model articulated by Lave ism, which takes the perspective that minds ple notion of relativism.
and Wenger. Even contemporary social con- are “inside heads.” How do such models The idea of objective/subjective, physical/
structivists who have been vocal critics of account for knowing the contents of other social co-enaction is clearly articulated by
individual-oriented constructivism have people’s minds? Heidegger (1962) – and Goodman (1978)
expressed views that can be interpreted as Aside from the theoretical challenges, hints at something similar in his model of
broadly enactive, e.g., “a radical social con- there is a great deal of research documenting worldmaking. However, it may be most
struction places [psychological functioning, phenomena that strongly suggest people do clearly illustrated by considering different
materialist metaphysics, and the existence of know and act in ways that rely on their knowl- perspectives on evolutionary theory. In tra-
macro-social institutions] presumptions in edge of how others think, feel, and the like. ditional accounts, there is adaptive evolution
brackets” (Gergen 1997). Research on intersubjectivity typically takes of historical lineages because, in the succinct
One thing that seems more certain is that place on the psychological or social level (e.g., formulation of the standard view, “the
for most social constructivists, the social is Trevarthen 1993, Bruner 1986). There is, organism proposes and the environment dis-
primary and the individual is derived from it, however, also work to sketch explanations poses.” By this view, lineages progressively
e.g., “consciousness is an emergent from such from biology. Thus, although the fundamen- adapt to a (more or less) unchanging, objec-
[social] behavior; that so far from being a pre- tal unit of analysis in autopoietic theory is tive environment. Recent evolutionary the-
condition of the social act, the social act is the clearly the individual (biological cell) and ory has modified this to a certain extent with
precondition of it” (Mead 1934, p. 18) and clearly biological, by this theory, the group/ such proposals as the “Red Queen hypothe-
“the social precedes the personal” (Gergen society is necessary for each type of individ- sis” (van Valen 1973). This perspective sug-
1997) (emphasis added). ual, from single-celled organisms to inverte- gests, by analogy to the eternal running of the
As we should expect, the enactive perspec- brates to humans (though, of course, the dif- Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the
tive does not attempt to prioritize one over ferent structures participate in the co- Looking Glass, that lineages are adapting to a
the other. Lave and Wenger express this per- enaction of different forms of social/individ- “moving target” – an environment that is,
spective nicely in their interpretation of situ- ual dynamics). Indeed, the model of con- itself changing.

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 31

engineering-computer scientific enactive cognitive science

A more radical perspective is that lineages determination, selection, circularity, or genera- such enaction is not localized to individuals,
and environments are changing because their tion, and the like. Cybernetics, for example, social structures, language, or worlds. And, as
changes bring about changes in each other; in has a long history of addressing questions of should be clear by this point, the enactive
other words, by this view, the evolving envi- circular-causality and even the role of the emphasis differs radically from recent work in
ronment of organisms is evolving partly observer in such systems (e.g., second-order cognitivism that proposes possible cognitive
because of those organisms – because of bio- cybernetics, Foerster 1996). mechanisms for coping with perceptual
logical transformations of materials and One reason for choosing the term co-enac- changes that occur as a result of individuals
energy, and because organisms actively mod- tion for this paper is that many of the other changing the state of an objective world (or
ify their environments in different ways. As terms tend to contribute to our difficulty in their perspective on it) by their actions.
Richard Lewontin (2000, p. 58) says, “the thinking about and understanding simulta- Of course, one current difficulty with the
constructionist view is that the world is neous phenomena; we do not have very well concept of co-enaction is that although it may
changing because the organisms are chang- developed intuitions about them – and thus, be possible to loosely describe certain phe-
ing”. Similar examples of co-determination – it is easy to assume that such proposals involve nomena in these terms, and although these
and co-regulation – are seen throughout the such things as circular sequences of causality, descriptions may be be resonant with our
life sciences, from the self-regulation of bod- e.g., “first a has an effect on b, and then (as a intuitions, it is, as yet, difficult to express this
ies (homeostasis, Cannon 1932) to atmo- result), b has an effect on a.” This phenomenal in terms that are formally precise enough to
spheric regulation at the global scale (Vernad- pattern is one possibility, but another involves speak about hypothetical mechanisms – or to
sky 1998, Lovelock & Margulis 1974). simultaneous acting-upon, constraining, implement as synthetic hypotheses, explana-
This radical perspective is resonant with influencing, and, yes, even generating each tions, or models. There are, nonetheless,
the more encompassing notion of co-enac- other. researchers attempting to articulate these
tion, which may be one of the most distinctive More importantly, the term co-enaction kinds of issues in the context of emergence
concerns of enactive cognitive science. The emphasizes that worlds-as-worlds (and indi- (and connectionist implementations) – or,
idea is that different cognitive phenomena viduals-as-individuals) are enacted – and that more recently, in terms of dynamical systems
across different scales are variously co-origi- models.
nating, co-generating, co-specified, co-deter- In part two of this paper, we will explore
mined, co-adaptive, co-constrained, co- ABOUT THE AUTHOR this issue in more detail as well as examine
evolving, and co-emergent. Thus, society and how the other research themes of enactive
individual co-arise, mind and world co-arise, Kevin McGee has a PhD in Media Arts and cognitive science have informed the develop-
micro and macro co-arise, and the like. Sciences from MIT. His main research inter- ment of relevant methods – and proposals for
Throughout most of the history of con- est is the development of partner technol- different kinds of cognitive explanations,
structivist cognitive science, attempts have ogies based on enactive cognitive models. mechanisms, and models.
been made to indicate and formulate some- He is currently affiliated with the Depart-
thing similar, variously as upward and down- ment of Computer Science, Linkoping Uni- Acknowledgments
ward causation, as circular causality, reactions, versity and the Santa Anna Research For invaluable feedback and suggestions, I
or mechanisms, as reciprocal causality, as co- Institute, both in Linköping, Sweden. would like to thank Alexander Riegler, Mario
arising or co-emergence, as mutual causality, Bourgoin, and the two reviewers of this paper.

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34 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

People, Tools, and Agency:

Who Is the Kybernetes?
Herbert F. J. Müller A McGill University,

5 Jaspers has emphasized that the mind

Purpose: This conceptual-epistemological paper deals with the old problem of inversion (consciousness, experience, awareness) is
of thinking, as typified by traditional metaphysics-ontology. It is proposed that a thorough encompassing. His observation can help to
constructivism – which views structures of mind, nature, and all, as not derived from (not identify the cause of the inversion, and also to
referring to) any pre-structured given mind-independent reality (zero-derivation, 0-D) – correct it. All mental entities, from smells and
can go beyond this conceptual impasse; it can also serve as a fall-back position for positive toothaches to physical objects, physiological
ontologies. Practical implications: The practical result of 0-D is that all structures of activity, theories of the universe, and divine
experience are understood as tools serving individual and collective subjects. revelation, are created and posited within
Conclusions: This conceptual correction results in a simplification for the understanding experience, which becomes structured by this
of some conceptual puzzles, such as the mind-brain relation, but also in a considerable activity only. Gestalt- and word-concepts are
increase of responsibility, because entities and agents formerly considered responsible, working-tools, and they do not “refer” to enti-
and outside the mind, are recognized to be extensions of the subjects. Key words: Inver- ties outside experience (zero-derivation, 0-
sion of experience, 0-D constructivism, problem of metaphysics-ontology, mind-brain D). They may be certified as real or true by
relation. trust that they are reliable. The encompassing
Note:This paper is a revised version of the Karl Jaspers Forum Target mind-and-nature-experience is the back-
Article 78. It is enlarged by the discussion of selected comments and responses in the forum. ground for phenomena (i.e., tool-structures)
and the only start-point for thinking. Work-
ing- or feedback-ontology can then replace
Mit allen Augen sieht die Kreatur 3 Rilke can perhaps be seen as a mystic, traditional inverted ontology, with the struc-
das Offene. Nur unsre Augen sind and van der Meijden (C1, C22) writes that his tures as tools. Since the 0-D view does not
wie umgekehrt und ganz um sie gestellt thinking cannot be used for “linear” (i.e., log- refer to ontological structures, it cannot be
als Fallen, rings um ihren freien Ausgang. ical) discussion. I think this is misleading. de-constructed in the ontological sense. The
(R. M. Rilke, Anfang der 8. Duineser Elegie) Mysticism (if that is the right word for Rilke’s MIR-view is then understood to be a modifi-
poetry) means a holistic view, and I want to cation of 0-D, a shortcut which bypasses its
show the relevance of Rilke’s holism for con- source. (More on the question of realism ver-
Overview ceptual thinking (and besides, van der sus constructivism can be found in Johnson
Meijden himself recommends “holograms”). 2004 and discussion; and in Müller R16 on a
1 Cybernetic concepts like feedback and sta- In his 8th Elegy, Rilke shows a central aspect of paper by Nola.)
bility of function apply to the subjective reality that is mostly overlooked by realistic 6 The subject or self, and his/her activity,
aspects of human experience as well as to metaphysicists. This can help to determine as well as the subject-object split and other
objective physical and biological systems. why traditional realistic thinking creates dichotomies, are also structured within expe-
Does this imply that we must understand our- problems; the main purpose is to find the rience as needed, alongside other tool-struc-
selves objectively, as machines in the physical connection between overall experience and tures including machines. The self may be
or biological sense? Does it mean that specific concepts. neglected or even denied, but it is in principle
machines will be in charge of us? And who sets 4 Inverted thinking sees reality as mind- always an aspect of experience and reality. – It
the goals? independently pre-structured (MIR; or also has become possible to understand much of
2 The relation between people and mind-exclusive reality, which would empha- the physiological activity that is needed for
machines resembles the one with earlier size the implied absence of the subject). Con- experience and mental structures to occur.
human tools like concepts, which are also cepts are said to refer to external entities, such But these explanations happen inside experi-
sometimes thought to have mind-indepen- as gods, beings-in-themselves, nature-in- ence; they are not identical with experience,
dent qualities. This idea expresses an inversion itself, etc. This inversion is particularly strong and they cannot replace it. For objectivists,
of experience, described by the poet Rilke as a in exclusively-objective views. It leads to con- this may be difficult to see: but because con-
problem for humans but not animals. He ceptual difficulties, most obviously in the sciousness is encompassing, no one can leave
spoke of traps that block our access to the open. mind-brain (or mind-body) problem, which its bubble, in order to look at it objectively,
It may be worth examining Rilke’s intuition. is intractable in any version of the MIR-view. from outside. Brain function is, like other

Constructivist Foundations 2005, vol. 1, no. 1 35

philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

structures, formed (and to be understood) electronic implant or other aid (a cardiac mostat), or a natural (mostly biological) unit
inside consciousness, not vice versa. This sug- pacemaker, or a hearing aid, for instance) is a which one observes. An objective question is
gests a reformulation of the mind-brain ques- cyborg. I am fairly deaf, and function better for instance, how a visual unit emerges from
tion: how can physiological knowledge help with a hearing aid – but I don’t like the idea the different excitatory states of retinal recep-
us to deal better with ourselves? that I depend on it, and others may have sim- tors (Foerster & Glasersfeld 1999, pp. 111–
7 Adams claims (C15, §11) that I “sud- ilar feelings, but such gadgets are part of life. 117). But how can one understand oneself as
denly introduce the subject, without defini- And besides, what about airplanes and their a functional system with cybernetic proper-
tion”; this is not correct, since I introduce it pilots, cars, bicycles, eye glasses, forks, knives, ties? Am I a system? (The problem is that one
from the beginning, as one of the structures and toothbrushes (with or without electron- is “one” to start with; see §56 ff below.) To ask
created in experience. He also writes that ics)? that is a bit confusing (how can one become
“there is no need for a subjective aspect” 11 The word cyborg was coined by Man- an object?) and therefore it is often skipped,
(Adams C15, §22), and that the physical body fred Clynes in 1960, from “cybernetic” and perhaps implying that there is no such ques-
is “inexplicable” (Adams C15, §15) because it “organism,” in collaboration with Nathan tion (as in “don’t look now, maybe it will go
is one of the structures of the world. These Kline, at the Rockland State Hospital in New away”). But there is.
statements reflect an MIR-view on the part of York State, USA, in work to devise ways for 15 In some areas one can see mechanisms
this commentator. They must be rejected, as humans to function in space exploration; of this type both objectively, from the outside,
both subject and world (or object, including they presented this at a NASA conference. and subjectively, from the inside. The herd
the body) are parts of experience. The sub- There is even a cyborg manifesto on the inter- instinct serves animals to decide on behavior
ject-construct forms pragmatically like every- net ( – with the choices (there may be a lead animal that for
thing else, such as the subject-object split (cf. same general message as that of Hacking), instance decides whether to fight or flee).
§6), and is an aspect of all experience. which one can support or oppose. Zebras attacked by lions tend to flee, in which
8 Awareness of the lack of outside sources 12 The idea of cyborgs has at present a case one or several of them may get killed but
furthermore implies that individual and col- somewhat magical aura, it seems; a bit like the rest of the herd is saved; this can be under-
lective selves are in principle in charge, even Harry Potter, or the notion that green men stood as an inherited behavior pattern with a
though they may not be equipped to deal with from outer space will take over the earth. Peo- built-in target of survival for the group. But
some situations, or incompletely formed, or ple like such phantasies because they take herd reactions can be manipulated for
weak. In that case the leadership (goal-setting them out of the confines of “official” reality, instance by hunters who drive a herd of buf-
and feedback-correction) falls back, by truth and thinking, and this without respon- faloes over a cliff, and most of them perish.
default or by design, onto other agents: sibility. But it may be of interest to look at this 16 At times one is personally in situations
humans, organizations like governments, or in a less melodramatic context: in a wider of this type (intellectual, religious, or political
sometimes machines. But although such sense, some aspects of this question are quite fashions, garment fashions, investment fash-
abdications of agency are common, there is old. ions), and the result may be beneficial, neu-
no reason to think that non-human agents 13 The term cybernetics in turn was pro- tral, or detrimental. The aim here is mostly to
can or should take over, either to dominate us posed by Norbert Wiener in 1948 for “the avoid mistakes of random behavior, due to a
or to relieve us from responsibility. Kant’s cat- study of information and control in humans need for company, or to be “with it,” on the
egorical imperative can provide a guideline and machines” (Wiener 1954), utilizing the assumption that the group cannot be entirely
for ethical goal setting. Greek word kybernetes, for helmsman. He wrong. But in either case one should not
9 Some of these points will be compared appears to have developed this concept dur- abandon personal responsibility to judge and
with the traditional naturalist (realist, meta- ing World War II, while studying anti-aircraft decide, by relying on input from what others
physical-ontological) view of John Searle, as fire control. It is generally accepted by now do, or from what some leader says one should
he describes it in his recent book “Mind” that cybernetic principles (such as feedback do.
(2004). and stability) also apply to biological systems. 17 One re-considers in taking a distance
Wiener’s work was also of influence on Heinz from what goes on and judging it objectively,
von Foerster, one of the originators of con- that is as-if it had a built-in structure and
First part: structivism, where it extends to psychology as meaning, not dependent of any one individ-
well. ual subject or group. This is often a helpful
People and tools procedure, because one can then re-assess the
Objective and subjective systems situation, taking a fresh look, and perhaps re-
Cyborgs and cybernetics 14 At this point cybernetic views become rel- structure it, and also avoid being overtaken by
10 The philosopher Ian Hacking, formerly of evant for what happens in subjective experi- what happens. Re-setting effects can also be
Toronto and now in Paris at the Collège de ence, and this results in some conceptual puz- obtained by other methods, like meditation,
France, has recently given a presentation at zles. What is a “system”? The usual meaning is and on a more directly physiological basis, by
the Université du Québec in Montreal on the objective, that is, a functional unit of technical yawning or sleep. Such procedures are similar
role of the cyborg in everyday life. He pointed type which people have made and use (for to re-starting a computer which has devel-
out that every human being with an artificial instance a missile guidance system, or a ther- oped program entanglement.

36 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

Second part: mean that it will look red in the daytime, or implying the ontological S–O split. He uses
with artificial light, which in an ontological the term “ontology” – without questioning it,
Tool problems leap of faith you posit to be its real MIR-state. as an aspect of “reality” (see §20 and §69).
21 The use of ontology (the leap to MIR- That means that he believes in MIR (in fact,
Subjects, objects, Descartes, leaps, belief) continues to be the conceptual Achilles he calls it “observer-independent phenom-
and Achilles heel of science and philosophy. Realists, and ena” (p.7), a somewhat puzzling term, since in
18 But the distancing (objectivation) proce- “hard” scientists in particular, often deny that the philosophical meaning, phenomena are
dure is commonly over-interpreted beyond they use metaphysics, and may be offended descriptions of the “observer’s” experience,
the distancing, in the sense that the structure when it is pointed out that they do (some even and thus cannot be “observer-independent”).
(thing, process, or situation) in-itself has a become unfriendly). In recent years though Thus he practices dualism despite his state-
mind-independent or even absolute (ontolog- they commonly use the word “ontology” as if ment that it is wrong.
ical = metaphysical) structure, existence, and that were the most self-evident term to 26 He writes (p. 2) that, for talking about
significance. This notion tends to promote a employ, perhaps unaware that it is a branch of mind and consciousness, he has eliminated a
belief in a primary or ontological split between metaphysics. Conventional metaphysics thus great number of “isms,” including material-
subject and object, as it has for instance been has a comeback in unexpected places. The ism (pp. 84–106), as possibilities for a con-
formulated by Descartes. His procedure problem here is that an ontologist is someone ceptual framework. (But he does not mention
(Augustinus’ dubito ergo sum → cogito ergo who is able to find a non-existent black cat (or constructivism; considering it might have
sum) has had a peculiar effect: his starting even two of them) in a room without light (cf. changed his conclusions). Instead he defends
point was subjectivity (“res cogitans,” perhaps §69). naïve realism (pp. 274–277), not by proving
implying that Descartes saw himself as a it, but by pointing to the “unintelligibility of
thinking object, a sort of internalized outside Ontology according to Searle its denial.” He calls his own realistic position
agency). He posited this subjectivity as a 22 The recent book called “Mind” by Searle “biological naturalism” (pp. 113–115). Let
doubt-free basis of certainty (or stability in the (2004) is a clearly written exposure of a tradi- me add that realism cannot be proven because
cybernetic sense) for all knowledge, but the res tional ontological view of the philosophy of the knowledge of metaphysical entities which
cogitans remained so fuzzy that for instance mind. This text can help for a comparison and realism implies is impossible. The problem
Hume and Kant questioned its validity. contrast of realism with the 0-D view, which here is that metaphysical realism is not intel-
19 Perhaps as a response to this problem of is important to do. ligible (despite the fact that the MIR-shortcut
fuzziness, there are debates like whether the 23 Searle offers “the solution to the mind- cf. (§55) is common practice in daily life and
self is “diachronic” (in terms of a self-pro- brain problem” (pp. 111 f.), saying he tries to in science). Traditional MIR-belief results
duced “narrative,” that one posits as one’s “just state the facts,” namely that subjective from misinterpretation of the reliability of
essence) or “episodic” in time (involving feelings (though they possess “subjective or many word-concepts as referring to extra-
memory to a lesser extent) (Strawson 2004). first-person ontology”) are “part of the real mental entities. But there is no need to deny
Others, like Crick (1994), went further, deny- world,” by which he means “facts” (which are realism so much as to change its understand-
ing the self altogether; his former collaborator “third-person ontology”). He calls this his ing: to transform MIR to working-MIR (or
Koch (2004) has recently mitigated this opin- “basic ontology” (p. 133). The connection realism to as-if realism); and this is quite intel-
ion by saying (in agreement with Searle 2004, between his first- and third-person ontologies ligible.
cf. §22 ff) that though “consciousness is part did not become clear to me from his descrip- 27 Searle makes the important point
of the ordinary physical world,” yet “it is not tion; the proposed “solution” appears to be (p.202) that science is defined as a method or
ontologically reducible to … brain processes” yet another re-wording of the mind-brain procedure rather than by ontology, with
and that, to resolve this paradox, “an ultimate problem in the non-functional MIR-view; all which I agree entirely. Now if he could elimi-
theory of consciousness” is needed. The fuzz- his argumentation in this book is MIR-belief- nate MIR-ontology (traditional metaphysics)
iness endures, evidently. based. altogether – it is superfluous and causes prob-
20 In contrast, Descartes’ second notion, 24 He says (pp. 13, 131 f.) that Descartes’ lems. Thinking involves procedures, use of
of objective outside reality (“res extensa”), dualism is wrong, but his main objection is mental tools, including temporary pragmatic
remained mostly unchallenged, although it is apparently not the dualism per se, but that, as stabilizers as needed. That is to say, ontology-
no less nebulous. It is commonly assumed to a consequence of his dualism, Descartes was metaphysics should be seen as working- (or
be the basis for a postulated mind-indepen- skeptical about the possibility of knowing as-if-) ontology-metaphysics. He has also
dently pre-structured reality (MIR, tradi- reality. I would think that doubt (skepticism) shown (as others have) that machines do not
tional metaphysics-ontology) – and also often is an essential part of thinking and knowing; (have to) understand symbols they deal with
seen as basis for all knowledge – to which not certainty invites problems. (his Chinese room argument, pp. 89 ff), and
only philosophers (since at least Parmenides) 25 And also, Searle’s use of traditional again I quite agree. We, not machines, are the
but also many scientists still subscribe, often ontology is not possible without dualism ones that understand symbols, including the
only implicitly. Consider a simple example: because it refers to MIR, which pre-supposes metaphysical ones. Jaspers called them
you look at a roof and say it is red, although it S–O dualism. He uses the terms “facts” or “the “ciphers”; we create and use them as tools:
appears black to everyone (i.e., at night). You world” in the sense of traditional realism, guideposts and stabilizers.

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philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

28 He finishes the book by saying (p. 304) showing that they are posited, i.e., they are not The problems of qualia and ineffables
that “we do not live in … two worlds, a mental truths in the ontological (MIR-)meaning 36 Nor does this imply a different status, for
world and a physical world … Rather, there is (Popper’s falsification and impossibility of instance, for qualia, as compared to other real-
just one world; it is the world we all live in, and ontological verification immediately follow ities, such as – preferably physical – objects
we need to account for how we exist as a part from this). They can, however, be trans- (which are in MIR-belief thought to be the real
of it.” I agree, with one qualification: the formed into working-structures; then they reality), shapes or numbers. Qualia present
world we live in is not discovered by us in a have a pragmatic and limited viability. Some conceptual problems in an MIR-framework,
pre-fabricated state, but we structure it (cf. of the more recent changes in world-view are because they cannot easily be MIRs. Realists
§50). Our possibilities of structuring are lim- related to giving up unwarranted assump- (naturalists) discuss for instance whether qua-
ited by the viability of the structures as deter- tions. For instance the beliefs in MIR-absolute lia like color, smell, or pain “exist”; but this
mined when trying them out, that is, by feed- space and time, which in relativity theory question has meaning only in a traditional
back-in-experience, and in some areas the were, because they had no operational mean- MIR-view; in 0-D, qualia-creation requires
choices are very limited (like for persons, or ing, replaced by a working assumption of con- the subjects’ activity, as do all other mind-and-
gravity, or counting). Structuring mostly stant speed of light independent of the speed nature-and-all structures.
does not imply “make up” or “build physi- of the emitting body but not of that of the 37 Wood (C12, §13) writes that pain dis-
cally,” but it does always mean that all mind- observer (though speed of light is often inter- appears with anaesthesia but the fear of its
and-world structures are the result of individ- preted as MIReal as well). return does not; I agree, these are different
ual and collective structuring and trust, 32 I agree with Glasersfeld (C8, §2) that questions.
within (“given”) unstructured and undivided “time” too is a created structure (see also §75). 38 For structuring and stability thinking
experience (cf. also Wood C12, §35). Wood (C12, §9, §12) says that “time is more needs overall encompassing structures. How-
than a mental form” because it is used by oth- ever, these are not provided by ordinary expe-
MIR, existence, falsification, ers; non sequitur: time is a collectively used rience, including perception, but rather by
and de-construction construct. extrapolation from scientific theories, by
29 A start-point for discussion of the MIR- 33 On the other hand, Kant’s point (cf. intuition, or by religious revelations.
tool can be Kant’s observation that phenom- §29) is compatible with the constructivist 39 We are inside the encompassing (expe-
ena – rather than MIR itself (noumena or assertion that we build structures (for self rience or structures), and thus these struc-
onta) – are all one can ever know. This prob- and world and all) inside our non-structured tures cannot be defined inside experience;
lem was also the start-point for the phenom- encompassing experience: the created struc- they are what is often called “ineffable.” If one
enological-existential philosophers since tures (and nothing further) are the phenom- tries to comprehend such (non-)entities (cf.
Hegel. But for stability reasons, and chiefly ena we can know, and use as working tools. §56) as-if they were circumscribed MIR-enti-
because they did not renounce the ontological 34 Some structures, which are found (or ties, one faces the conceptual paradoxes of
subject-object split explicitly, they had a dis- wished) to be particularly reliable, are theism and of various other types of MIR-
concerting tendency to fall back onto MIR- invested with trust and may be called real or concepts-of-everything. Though they cannot
ontology, which they paradoxically implied true, and then they may in turn be used as become circumscribed entities, they can have
could be done on a phenomenological basis sources of strength. For instance the moon is names (cf. §63), which makes this more puz-
(they missed the point that phenomena are real because one expects it to be visible the zling (but “nothing” also has a name).
constructed). Heidegger even wanted to write next time one looks, and when it is not, one 40 Most of us are born into one or another
a “fundamental ontology.” Logical and other has some explanations: clouds obstructing tradition of the many practiced religious or
positivists, despite their anti-metaphysical the view, the moon descending below the semi-religious creeds; thus for most people
start, had an even quicker relapse into MIR- horizon because it circles the earth, etc. Other the question of choosing between them does
metaphysics (if they had ever left it). Realists times had other explanations, for instance in not come up. Still, because they are arbitrary
simply disregard Kant’s finding (and the les- old Egypt an ad-hoc goddess (Nut) swal- in the sense that there are so many competing
son from Plato’s cave parable) until now and lowed the sun in the evening and gave birth offers for help with the need for structure,
stick with MIR-belief; this can lead to notions to it in the morning. And, due to their reli- they need and receive social enforcement for
like Minkowski’s 4-dimensional MIR-“block- ability and importance, sun and moon have persistence and effectiveness. In theistic reli-
universe” and pre-destination, a particularly become gods, or close to that, in some cul- gion the emphasis is on establishing the belief
striking side-effect of thought-inversion. This tures. with help of an ontological leap to MIReality,
paradox vanishes with change from MIR to 35 But that some-one or some-thing and thereafter its reinforcement by indoctri-
working-MIR (see §62 ff). “exists” means only that he, she, it “stands nation, preaching, rituals, and punishment
30 Constructivism is an attempt to out.” It does not say why it stands out, nor for disagreement. In any of these views, strong
improve on phenomenology in overcoming whether or not it is mind-independent, or beliefs tend to cause conflict with experiences
this problem, but the possibility of MIR- guaranteed in some way (cf. §42). For that cannot be understood within them.
relapse remains here as well. instance, existence can simply be posited 41 In science and philosophy, discussions
31 All ontological truths are subject to fal- pragmatically, as working-existence (as 0-D can in contrast result either in strengthening
sification or de-construction qua onta, by proposes, cf. §62 ff). or in weakening of the discussed structures.

38 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

The source of the MIR-problem experience, word-concepts (or their postu- structed, as in 0-D (C37; the practical ques-
42 The MIR-problem of existence stems from lated fictitious referents) may be wished to be tion is further discussed in R9 and R12 to
(a) the explicit or implied non-functional more reliable (real or true). One may want Dykstra).
belief in an ontological or primary subject- mental structures to be guaranteed by a 48 In McCarthy’s opinion (C2) equating
object split, which is a pre-supposition for mind-external agency like God or Nature, consciousness with the encompassing makes
MIR-belief (since there can be no mind-inde- although both of these are actually unifying knowledge merely subjective (also in C17,
pendence without it). But the S–O split itself is extrapolations from structures created in §12). This statement is misleading; encom-
often not seen as a problem and therefore not experience. You feel more comfortable deal- passing experience, and its knowledge func-
discussed; but precisely this causes a problem, ing with a pre-fabricated outside world than tion, are subject-inclusive, but not solipsistic.
because the ontological leap (cf. §20) then with only the word-concepts you trust – but 49 McCarthy (C5, §3) also expresses his
goes unnoticed and is naïvely taken for the outside world is itself a word-concept, uneasiness with the concept of “trust”: “I am
granted. And (b) the belief in the ontological made “real” via trust. This step to MIR-belief not happy with the word trust … I would seek
S–O split implies the notion, also often not is often but not always supported by feedback a greater certitude than this implies.” I think
even mentioned, that word-concepts, or even experience (including feedback from group to be absolutely certain is not a recommend-
gestalt-formations alone, either have or “refer thinking and behavior) while using it – able wish. It is dangerous, and it can be
to” a mind-independent already-structured though usefulness and reliability do not mean desired only if you postulate MIR; to be
existence of some type (cf. Glasersfeld 2004). MIR-existence. clearer for this particular aspect, one could
43 Concerning this point, Glasersfeld (C8 , 45 Because the S–O split is secondary (or perhaps call it mind-exclusive reality. McCar-
§1) comments that “ … relinquishing the two pragmatic), there can be neither MIR-ontol- thy suggests that some phenomena “are spe-
notions [subject and object] does not get rid of ogy nor subjective or solipsistic ontology (cf. cial” (non-mind-independent reality, nMIR),
a S–O split. In my view, words do have mean- §23). This may sound simple but is difficult to as suggested in Goethe’s Anschauende Urteils-
ing, but what they denote are not objects of maintain in practice; there is a strong ten- kraft (or I would add, Husserl’s Wesens-
reality but pieces of the language user’s experi- dency to fall back into MIR-thinking, because Schau) – but this does not change the con-
ence… I would say one can confront only it feels safer, and is easier to do. struction aspect, and Husserl fell back into
items that one considers separate from one- 46 Sufficient stability is needed for suc- MIR. I don’t believe that nMIR can help here.
self.” – I agree; one cannot confront experience cessful function, but it does not require MIR- McCarthy (C5, §3) says that thinking is not
as a whole because one is inside it. “Self ” is a ontology. The ontological leap (cf. §20) pro- subjective nor objective but “hyperjective” –
(pragmatic) structure inside experience like vides stability (particularly when the ontology this term may, or may not, be compatible with
all others, and so is the S–O split; experience is is viewed as absolutely valid), but also causes the notion of the pragmatic (rather than
encompassing but “the self ” as a created struc- problems, such as rigidity or fanaticism. One ontological) S–O split.
ture is not (cf. §56). The self can confront can instead use working- (or as-if-) ontology, 50 The answer to the question “How do we
objects as “other,” but cannot confront the where ontological (= metaphysical) entities move from 0-D to … mind-inclusive experi-
encompassing experience (see §39, §63, §65, are not assumed to be absolutes, but posited ence?” (McCarthy C17, §4) must be: by struc-
§87), inside which the self is created. This as working-tools. Such as-if-metaphysical turing self-world-and-all within the other-
point is tricky, because one can “confront” the tools work. Although there is no such thing as wise unstructured. But McCarthy’s further
created word-concepts, such as “encompass- a banana-in-itself, one can use that concept questions like “How does knowledge arise?
ing,” almost like objects, even when one can- for practical purposes, as-if it existed. For What is the criterion of epistemic closure?
not confront the experience itself. That can instance in advertising, as in “The Delicious What sort of feedback do we need? … the con-
mislead into the belief that the experience Popocatepetl Banana.” (I mentioned to the tent confronting it?” (C17, §5) suggest MIR-
itself as well can become a circumscribed chief of a marketing firm that – as every reader belief on his part. “We have to see the neces-
object (similar to “nothingness,” or “infinite,” who has followed me up to here will surely sary postulate at the theoretical level by a pure
or “God,” about which much has been said and agree – she uses metaphysical methods, but I act from the depths of our own selves (“This”
written, although the contents of these con- received the answer that I must be on drugs. I would make closure) and find its equivalent
cepts are “ineffable”). Neglecting the distinc- swear I was not – any more than I should be. in our actual experience.” (C17, §6) – In my
tion between self and encompassing can also This left me with the impression that I had not opinion things are less complicated: we create
lead to notions of omnipotence. Aside from achieved an instant market breakthrough; but structures, and accept them if they fit well,
this, language cannot be the “house of being” mind you, I did not get a chance to explain some of them with a compelling feature of
(Heidegger) or, as Glasersfeld has also empha- working-metaphysics to her.) closure, but this closure does not imply an
sized, the “cause of consciousness” (Mat- 47 Dykstra (C32) emphasises, as a guide- equivalent everywhere. – That my definition
urana), despite its central role as a human tool. line to education, the ability of all people to of consciousness “locks knowledge into sub-
create structures. The question of the actual jectivity” (C2, §1) etc., corresponds to a fre-
The problem of stability effects of various education-methods may quent objection to constructivism; it neglects
versus existence become central for future planning. 0-D ver- the encompassing quality of consciousness,
44 Since one can be certain only to a limited sus MIR-belief is a question of whether reality within which both subject and object are
degree about the reliability of structures in is to be found, as MIR-belief assumes, or con- structured, with no ontological S–O split.

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 39

philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

51 Another expression of the same type of ability of an arsenal of tools and strategies, or quently, he wants to know what 0-D contrib-
misunderstanding is Wood’s opinion (C12, creation of new ones. utes beyond that. In my opinion, social con-
§30) that “… experience [is] … not only struction is only one aspect of epistemic
encompassing but also encompassed by real Problems with traditional realism as construction; all mental tools are con-
possibilities”: but reality is encompassed by shortcut for 0-D structed, including those which are private to
experience, and not vice versa as implied in 55 The traditional realism (MIR-metaphys- one person, though many structures have in
Wood’s MIR-view. ics-ontology) can be understood as a special addition a social input. My main aim is an
52 The constructed as-if-MIR can be instance of working-ontology, obtained from access to the mind-brain question, and con-
understood in analogy to some mathematical it by using a shortcut: by shunting its origin in structivism is the only one I know of so far;
concepts where this feature is more plainly structuring activity, or more commonly by since this implies changes in conceptual view,
seen: the infinite, or imaginary numbers, neglecting or even denying it. But although it has general ramifications. The “no explana-
which work although they are obviously this works for many purposes, such neglect tion” statement is correct, it expresses an
man-made (“fictitious”) and are not usually does not make it right, since it mistakes tem- expectation based on MIR-belief. Explana-
said to exist mind-independently. To claim porary fixations, within experience, for per- tions (C15, §5) can only be structures inside
that they are would mean trying to turn math- manent, or even absolute, outside realities. experience; attempts to explain experience
ematics into traditional metaphysics; the This may result in difficulties when trying to itself imply reduction of experience to some-
Pythagoreans had already tried this, without deal with problems. thing inside experience, which is self-contra-
success. The created mathematical tool-enti- dictory. As Adams writes (C15, §24), 0-D is
ties are not “wrong” or “impossible” (includ- phenomenal, descriptive.
ing for instance imaginary numbers) if one Third part: 58 I don’t say that “structured mind and
knows their functions (cf. also Lakoff & world exist,” as Adams claims (C15, §3) that I
Núñez 2000). Likewise, the working-ontol-
Remedy. 0-D tool do; rather the structures are created, and if
ogy tools are working-structures, they are nei- structuring within they are invested with trust they may or may
ther wrong nor impossible; it is their tradi- not be said to exist (C15, §25); Adams’ state-
tional MIR-equivalents that are wrong and
encompassing ment as quoted would, in contrast, imply
impossible. experience MIR-belief.
59 Although we can (actually have to)
Strategy-feedback for problems The encompassing mind and consider and handle ourselves as finite subjec-
53 In working-metaphysics, ontological enti- subject-inclusive structuring tive entities, our mind also encompasses all of
ties become working-structures that are self-and-world. In other words, the subject or
applied to unstructured experience, some- 56 Consciousness (awareness, experience, self (which we posit as our personal identity),
what like (a grid of) markers to uncharted ter- mind) is encompassing (or perhaps more to is structured inside experience (which one
ritory. They can be known only as working- the point: we are in the encompassing, and we confronts as given in unstructured condition)
propositions (mental tools). Therefore the ourselves are the encompassing; (as Jaspers as are also objects, the subject-object and sim-
earlier naïve-ontological view of the subject- 1947, p. 39, put it, “das Umgreifende, in dem ilar dichotomies, qualia, numbers, universal
object split is transformed into a pragmatic wir sind, und das wir selber sind”). One is and theistic word-concepts. This makes expe-
one, in which working-structures are cor- usually focused on some entities of mind- rience subject-inclusive (but not subjective-
rected by feedback during use (one might call and-world and not on the encompassing, but only, i.e., not solipsistic – constructivism is
it feedback-ontology). Ongoing experience nothing can occur outside it – notions that commonly mis-interpreted as solipsistic).
(the mind, consciousness) is the only avail- there are things outside experience are extrap- Structuring the self tolerates a greater degree
able start-point for any conceptual structure olations from experience. I suggest that, to of arbitrariness than structuring in many
(theory) that would deal with the mind-brain clarify the question of the subject, it is helpful other fields of knowledge does. This has
relation. to distinguish between the two aspects men- prompted the statement that “we invent our-
54 The term “feedback” is used here in a tioned by Jaspers: (a) consciousness as “the selves” (Foerster & Glasersfeld 1999).
more general sense than usual. It goes beyond encompassing” and (b) self (“I” or “we”), 60 The encompassing aspect of conscious-
quantitative influences on functions (change which is the encompassed subject-structure ness is an important consideration, although
of magnitude or direction), and on to the inside this, our own, encompassing mind. Jaspers did not quite manage to leave tradi-
question of adequacy of the utilized tools The relation between the two aspects can tional ontology behind. Since he was aware of
(functional entities) themselves, or even to present conceptual difficulties but is funda- the impossibility as well as of the necessity of
changes in overall strategy. This situation is a mental; in mysticism and similar states they metaphysics (which he called “ciphers” (Jas-
bit like having a flat tire: you notice (“feed- can become the same (cf. §43 above). pers 1947, p. 1030)), he finally decided on
back”) that the car malfunctions, and to deal 57 Adams (C15, §24) writes that “0-D what he called “peri-echontology” (p.158),
with that you need to inflate or change a tire, apparently stands for “no explanation.” … I which is still a kind of MIR. It seems to me
or perhaps a tow-truck is needed, or some am disappointed to find nothing beyond the instead more helpful to deal with this paradox
other tool or strategy. This requires the avail- endorsement of social construction.” Conse- in terms of “working-metaphysics” (as-if-

40 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

MIR) as a human instrument (see Müller as fall-back position for other (i.e., positive) 0-D can help with some puzzles
2003) rather than as “being” or “peri-being.” epistemologies, and help avoid MIR-relapses; 66 A person’s experience is from the begin-
Working-metaphysics deals with both these this is a positive assertion, open to falsifica- ning shaped by, among other things, input
aspects: impossibility of metaphysics as tion by counter-examples that cannot fall from other people (to varying degree – autis-
affirming MIR-existence, as well as need for a back on 0-D (see also §22–§28 above, on tic persons use less of that, due to impaired
tool of this kind (as with mathematics, cf. Searle’s book). The change from MIR-ontol- brain function). Thus we know others’ minds
§52). ogy to working-ontology might be seen as a from the outset, by empathy and with the help
61 Nixon (C33) objects that an as-if-abso- sort of mid-course correction for conceptual of verbal communication. The so-called
lute is a contradiction in terms. This is true, thinking (see also my R14, §13 ff; and discus- “problem of other minds” is an example of an
and actually points to the main difficulty with sion of Pivnicki’s
ˇ comment C24 in §111 ff artefact caused by the belief in pre-structured
using working-ontology; it frequently causes below). MIR, for which only bodies or observable
MIR-relapse. It stems from the conflict 64 The correction implies acknowledg- behaviors exist (are real); other minds do not
between wanting certainty and the insight ment that the matrix (consciousness) cannot qualify for MIReality.
that none is available: that doubt is present, be a part of the ordinary physical world which 67 There are further puzzles (as listed by
and actually desirable, at all times. We may is a multitude of encompassed entities (as Searle 2004, pp. 9–32) that have similar char-
have come to a point where we need to accept Searle 2004, p.17, also points out). Words like acteristics, and I want to suggest that a good
this conflict as a fundamental condition of “mind” or “consciousness” refer to the part of them is also gratuitous, an artefact of
thinking (cf. §46 ff), rather than comforting encompassing (cf. §56 above), and therefore the MIR-view. To the extent that they are, they
ourselves with absolute beliefs of one or to something “ineffable.” Mind (conscious- disappear in the 0-D view, which also accom-
another kind. A sort of consolation may be ness) cannot be reduced to MIR-entities, modates much of what Searle calls “features of
that this kind of problem is easier to compre- including objective processes like evolution. consciousness” (pp. 134–145). I will briefly
hend than the notion of absolute but inacces- That is a likely conceptual reason for Jaspers’ mention a few of these in the following.
sible truth and reality in traditional meta- insistence that the essence of man cannot be 68 The mind-body problem. If only MIR is
physics. As I mentioned in R13, the relation found in evolution, and also for the curious real, the mind cannot be real, because the
between traditional and 0-D epistemologies denial of biological evolution by some reli- mind cannot be mind-independent; in 0-D,
is asymmetrical, since 0-D supports MIR- gious groups (cf. Wood, C40). This was, how- objective concepts like brain are acknowl-
belief as a makeshift procedure, but MIR does ever, not Jaspers’ opinion (see Müller R8): “Es edged to be tools of and within the mind. In
not support 0-D. ist gewiss, dass der Mensch im Ganzen mit my opinion, this provides an intelligible and
biologischen Mitteln nicht erfassbar ist, – dass contradiction-free connection between mind
0-D (working ontology) mid-course er aber bis in alle seine Realitäten hinein and physical reality. See §80 ff, and for further
correction in tool-use zugleich eine biologische Realität ist und biol- details, Müller (1997, 2000, 2001).
62 The mind (or experience or awareness or ogisch, d.h., mit den Kategorien fassbar ist, in 69 The problems of doubt or skepticism
consciousness) is the encompassing matrix or denen alles Leben der Tiere und Pflanzen about knowledge of the external world, and the
background or envelope, unstructured and erforscht wird.” (My translation: “It is certain analysis of perception (a “disaster in the his-
undivided except for our automatic and/or that man as a whole cannot be grasped with tory of philosophy,” according to Searle 2004,
deliberate structuring, for all structures (qua- biological methods, – but that he is into all his p. 23): in my opinion skepticism (or doubt) is
lia, self, S–O split, others, brain, world, uni- realities at the same time a biological reality, an essential feature of thinking and knowl-
verse, gods, etc.). They are structured inside it and can be grasped biologically, i.e., with the edge; naïve as well as explicit MIR-beliefs are
as needed (working structures), not from any categories in which all life of the life of animals dead ends, certainty is foolish. Or, in case you
somehow given ready-made structures (zero- and plants is studied.”) (Jaspers 1949, p. 47). like the term “disaster in the history of philos-
derivation, 0-D). Awareness of this relation 65 The many attempts to structure the ophy”: it is rather that for over 2500 years phi-
could be a start-point for an “ultimate theory whole of consciousness, e.g., “God,” or “All,” losophy has not really ceased to chase and find
of consciousness” as requested by Koch (2004; or sometimes “Nature” or “Universe” (i.e., in the non-existent ontological black cat (MIR)
and §19 above). case they include the subject) are necessarily (cf. §21), despite a few false starts of efforts to
63 Although the encompassing matrix can limited to mystical or paradoxical beliefs, do without it. In fact, recent writings are often
be named (as a not-structured item, within because the encompassing cannot be encom- less restrained and more naïve about that kind
which structures are formed), it cannot itself passed by concepts. In contrast, exclusively- of endeavour than the critical philosophy of
be encompassed, that is, it cannot become an objective theories of everything cannot work the 18th and 19th centuries.
entity within itself (see §43). But further- because they exclude the mind (subject). That 70 One might add here the Question of
more, since the 0-D view is a negative asser- does not imply that mental functions do not perception (Searle 2004, pp. 259 ff). Do you
tion, denying pre-structured entities, it can- depend on brain function, but rather shows know what you see, or do you see what you
not be ontologically de-constructed. (It could the irreversible relationship of consciousness know, both, or neither? For instance in TV car
only be falsified by proof of MIR (= ontology- to the structures (e.g., brain or brain-func- commercials the wheels often turn backwards
metaphysics), which has been tried unsuc- tion) that can “exist” only within it, not inde- while the car moves forward – which way does
cessfully for a long time). However, it can serve pendently of it. naïve realism (p. 274) turn? In 0-D one would

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 41

philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

say that the immediate perception (turning 77 Mental causation and epiphenomenal- 82 Damasio (1994) thinks Descartes erred
backward) is a non-functioning structure ism. Another typical MIR-belief problem; if, in proposing an ontological separation of
which is quickly invalidated via feedback as in 0-D, the subject is a part of all reality mind and body; he proposed that the mind
from memory of other experience, to the there is in principle no such difficulty. MIR- must be seen as related to the whole organism.
effect that wheels turn forward when cars causality is a pragmatic assumption, since it is That mind and brain should be studied
move forward, and that the immediate naïve helpful to regard physical events like that; it is jointly is indeed an important point. But the
perception is the outcome of a technical arte- economical to omit the subject in practice concept of “embodied mind,” which Damasio
fact. Objects and functions are entities struc- (but not in principle). proposed to counteract the Cartesian S–O
tured within the encompassing mind-and- 78 Psychological and social causation. split, is not helpful; it is a pseudo-solution, an
nature experience, they are not MIR. Idem; this is a question of individual and attempt to provide a verbal answer to a con-
71 The qualia problem (cf. §36). In case social experience and initiative. (Most of ceptual problem that is largely caused by
only supposedly pre-structured MIR-objects these problems are traps in Rilke’s meaning, words to start with.
are believed to be real, qualia may not be con- in the sense of the intial quotation from his 8th 83 The notion of embodied mind has in
sidered real. In 0-D there is no such question; elegy.) recent years been used by a variety of authors,
real are structures that one invests with trust but it is a conceptual non-starter, because it
while using them. In summary implies that for instance the mind = the brain,
72 The problem of free will. This too is a 79 Although conscious experience can only and vice versa. This is not possible, because
problem only in the inverted reasoning of take place on the basis of brain function (e.g., one can have a mind without knowing any-
MIR- and mechanical-cause-primacy. In 0-D Crick’s (1994) “neural correlates of con- thing about the brain, a dead brain has no
we are free to structure our experience and to sciousness”), brain function is not MIR. The mind, etc. And this self-contradictory idea is
act within the trusted reality, though within only access to (= knowledge of) brain func- also expressed by other opaque mantra-
limits that can differ greatly between various tion is through the encompassing conscious like3formulae like “the mind–brain.” The
fields of experience, as determined by feed- experience, inside which structures are cre- cause and/or result of using such terms are
back experience when using the structures. If ated, from no given referents (0-D). The expe- attempts to objectify the subject; in other
one reasons within exclusive objectivity, the rience-matrix has to be the start point for words, instead of overcoming the S–O split,
subject is omitted; but objectivity itself is a “theories of consciousness” like for every- one tries to shift the subject from Descartes’
specialized view within subject-inclusive thing else. That would imply circular reason- subject pole to the object pole. (That is, to
experience, which acts as-if there were no ing only if consciousness were seen as an MIR- convert the subject into an object, partly in
subject. (The term “as-if ” is here used in a object (as in “levels of consciousness” for efforts to make the study of consciousness
wider sense than by Vaihinger.) Causes and instance), but not consciousness as encom- “scientific” – this term can also become a
logic are mind-and-world sequences. passing, experience-as-a-whole, inside of mantra, especially if it is not defined).
73 The problem of self and personal identity which objective events take place. 84 Efforts of this type still result in a great
(see the mind-body problem §68 and §80 ff). deal of literature; they also imply in effect that
74 Do animals have minds? This often there is no subject. But instead one can see
involves theological arguments about the soul. Fourth part: both S and O as pragmatic and heuristic
In 0-D, the main difference between higher structures, created simultaneously, within an
animals and humans is the availability and use
The kybernetes originally undivided (and also generally
of human language, which greatly extends the unstructured) ongoing experience. The brain
possibilities of gestalt-function and action. The real self as helmsman as well as the self are structures within the
75 The problems of sleep, unconsciousness, 80 But now really: is the mind real or not? matrix of experience (the mind, awareness,
the unconscious. MIR-belief would require Briefly, the mind (experience, consciousness) consciousness), which is originally neither
persistence of consciousness (similar to per- is the only available access to reality, which is structured nor even sub-divided, and thus the
sistence of the moon) if it were to be MIR-real. constituted within it, and this includes the brain is in the mind, not vice versa. The S–O
For 0-D in contrast this is not a relevant con- structured self. The self is an item (agency) split as well is in that case a pragmatic (sec-
ceptual question, because the self-agency structured inside experience which itself is ondary, and not ontological or primary)
structure does not per se imply an assurance ineffable (it cannot be defined, cf. §39), structure.
or requirement of uninterrupted presence. although it can be named. 85 Mantras or incantations are verbal
(“Time” of course is a construct like other 81 But in case reality is defined as mind- methods used for the purpose of reaching
structures; it structures the flow aspect of independent, the mind cannot be real, sources of power. They have for instance reli-
experience, cf. §31.) because evidently the mind cannot be mind- gious uses like in attaining a personal medita-
76 The problem of intentionality. This is independent. This may sound like a joke, but tion state (as in “om mani padme hum”), or to
only a problem if MIR is assumed; it disap- that question has caused much conceptual invoke the help of, or to unite with, a posited
pears if reality is structured in experience, confusion, and will continue to do so until outside divine source. For such aims, they can
since we mostly know our structures and do reality is understood in a more appropriate be helpful. But they ought to be distinguished
not intend something outside experience. manner (§44 ff). from specific conceptual tools, used for more

42 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

circumscribed tasks. For instance, “science” this point implies a primary (MIR-ontologi- and for communication, with the result that
refers to methods of study of specific ques- cal) S–O split. S–O structuring happens much of experience has a communal aspect.
tions that use reliable tools (including con- within experience, and in addition some peo- In addition, there were words for events that
cepts), that produce replicable results in the ple claim they can revert to an empty state of were difficult to deal with, they were called
statistical sense (see Müller 2001, §8c); the consciousness (nirvana), that is to before the gods, or forces of nature. Early on, people saw
term should not be used as a mantra, for S–O split. themselves as being directly influenced by
instance to invoke the authority of science, as 89 Reality-fixation by trust applies not such forces, for instance in the Iliad. The sense
sometimes happens (see also §92 and §105 only to objects but also to the subject, and as of self-agency and communal action devel-
ff). Terms like “embodied mind” and “mind- well to religious and similar structures. There oped gradually, and they still develop individ-
brain” have no procedural meaning, save as is in principle no reason why the subject (the ually and world-wide; many relapses occur
incantations, conjuring a solution to the self-agency tool) should be less real than other into earlier ways of thinking, with abandon-
mind-brain relation problem. structures (such as object-tools), although ment of responsibility to fictional outside
86 If one wants to use a conceptual frame- the self can be weak for people with poor self- authorities.
work (theory) to address the mind-brain rela- esteem, or those indoctrinated into submis- 92 People are usually aware that their
tionship, the S–O question (see §18 to §42) sion. In other words, although consciousness powers to influence events are limited, but
must be addressed. Specifically, one has to cannot encompass itself, it can encompass a may try to join forces with more powerful
change from a non-functional belief in a pri- self-agent (or subject) that becomes struc- MIR-entities. But they have themselves struc-
mary ontological S–O split – whether naïve or tured inside consciousness. (Whether it sees tured these entities: They believe in human
explicit – to a secondary pragmatic one itself as more diachronic or as more episodic authorities (leaders), supernatural human-
(inside undivided and unstructured experi- in Strawson’s (2004, §19 above) meaning is like entities (gods), or in word-concepts
ence). The repudiation of the ontological S–O secondary to the agency question per se.) (ideas). The Pythagoreans did this, they wor-
split, and of traditional ontology in general, in 90 The helmsman is the self, once it (she, shipped numbers, or also Marx, who used the
favor of a change to working-ontology and a he) has become sufficiently structured and science mantra3 for reasons of authority: he
pragmatic S–O split, is a prerequisite for a vested with trust. It is not functional if it is claimed that his Hegelian ideas must not be
“theory of the mind.” And further, since the weak or not structured at all, and then the doubted because they were no longer philo-
mind-brain relationship is a rather funda- steering goes back to other agencies by sophical speculation but science, and what
mental conceptual problem, it can be consid- default: to other selves (like parents, partners, could be better than a scientifically proven
ered a test question for the overall usefulness community agents, religious or political lead- political dogma and system? All you need is an
of epistemologies. ers, or also to manipulators of various kinds) interpretation of a text. In these instances,
87 Glasersfeld (C8, §3) writes: “What and other posited authorities, for instance people put their own creations in charge of
would theories of consciousness be if con- religious or political entities and texts. And them. The same happens when “nature” is
sciousness is not able to reflect back upon always, objective biological pre-self “systems” ascribed the status of mind-independent real-
itself as though it were an object?” I suggest are at work, either simultaneously with the ity (nature tells scientists what is real, they
that the “self,” a structure within conscious- self-agent and other-person-agents, or some- may insist). People using word-concepts are
ness, can to some extent be constructed, but times more autonomously, as in some new- the precursors of the cyborgs and of users of
that consciousness, although it can be named, born animals (newly hatched fish are on their complex machinery, but there is no need to
is not an object or entity (it is “ineffable”), own from the start). There is a need for coor- think that tools of either type inevitably
because of its encompassing quality. The dination between the various agencies, and in become our masters (§95 to §104 below).
question is similar to: what are the infinite, the the mature person this is largely a task of the
all, God? The encompassing quality is funda- pre-frontal cortex together with the left hemi- Complexity and your certainty:
mental, but in object-oriented studies it is sphere language functions. Mental as well as stability versus absence of doubt
inevitably neglected. Theories try to provide physical tools are extensions of the self. 93 There is a constant alternation between
structures for enquiry, but they too have to be having control and relinquishing it to other
based in unstructured experience, and must On the use of tools with ascribed agents. This varies a great deal, not only
take account of it, if they want to avoid blind autonomy and authority between persons, but also for one person
alleys (as they are encountered in objective 91 Over the millennia, mental tools were between situations. If you take an airplane, you
mind-exclusive theories of everything). This developed, such as perceptual gestalt forma- transfer control to a large system of people and
is a likely reason for the invention of the term tions (as animals already have), and in addi- machines of which you suppose that they func-
“transcendence”: these meanings transcend tion specifically human tools like words, to tion adequately, while you relax and have a
all definable (circumscribed) items (cf. §43). elaborate and fortify these formations, in drink (thinking about the many uncertainties
88 McCarthy (C17, §10) suggests that “… word-concepts, ideas, and numbers. The lat- might turn you into a non-flyer, even in the
with an S–O split, consciousness begins … ter start out as words for counting activity and absence of terrorists). Or in adhering to a reli-
therefore consciousness cannot be identical its results; machines like computers have been gious, political, or scientific opinion-set people
to experience”: that is a question of definition, added. Some of the tools have turned out to may trust that they base themselves on a
I would think. To postulate a discontinuity at be useful, both for individuals doing things, doubt-free given outside MIReality (§24, §69).

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 43

philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

Fanaticism is often used to compensate (and steering functions, if we let them, and more ence; and besides, the term idealism for 0-D
over-compensate) for confused thinking and so if they are believed to have powers that is erroneous: ideas are tool-structures, not
other personal weakness. And some – your fel- transcend individual and collective human absolutes (cf. §101 and R2). One can have an
low humans, including your employees, like experience and control. The main difficulty is idea of a chair when not dealing with a chair,
politicians, kings, and clerics – may abandon the ascription of final authority to (postu- but the viability of an idea is tested by trying
thinking to belief in authority, proclaiming lated outside) MIR-agents, rather than the it out. For instance one assumes the chair to
that they possess the truth, and that doubt can alternation per se between the various cyber- be real when, in conformity with the idea of
be dispensed with – you may suffer the conse- netic systems. This authority ascription away a chair, it also meets criteria like solidity and
quences. (The story of the man-made decline from the subject results in an inversion of perseverance. But hat point may be close to
of Easter Island by deforestation, related to thinking, and can make a return to one’s own incomprehensible if one bases oneself on the
excessive ancestor worship of the inhabitants, agency and free interplay difficult. notion of a primary mind-independently
is relevant here; cf. Wright (2004), who also 96 Through human history, this situation pre-structured (metaphysical) reality, in
points out that the several thousand years of has shifted. One may suppose that when which case what Chumakin calls the “blind
civilization amount to a tiny proportion of the word-concepts became tools for communi- giant of science” (C3, §7) takes over.
millions of years of use of physical tools.) cation and steering, it turned out that they 99 Are God or Nature mind-independent
and their meanings could be easily changed or not? The most common opinion in both
Your levels of biological regulation and manipulated, resulting in arbitrariness instances is dualistic belief in MIR (tradi-
94 One should remember that something (sometimes mis-named “relativity”) of tional ontology = metaphysics, and this
similar happens within oneself. There are thought and action, and thus in uncertainty despite the denial by many who use it). The
many self-regulating systems in the body: about one’s own behavior and that of others. traditional belief in mind-independent
sub-cortical steering of heart function, blood More certainty was needed, and belief sys- nature has a long history too, and in Des-
pressure, metabolic and hormonal require- tems for thought-and-behavior were devel- cartes’ error it was only formalized; it devel-
ments, and also at the cellular level, etc., all oped, adopted and enforced. These systems oped from MIR-God; indeed Descartes
with set targets, and feedback and stability helped to improve individual and collective retained God as a guarantor for his proposal.
mechanisms. They may be more, or less, ade- stability by limiting the range of thinking and At times God is presented as identifying him-
quate, and they have to be coordinated with actions that were to be expected, and to help self by saying “I am who I am,” which leaves
each other too. The overall steering agency with this the rules were furthermore often the question floating. Mystics, on the other
shifts to some extent during life, from mainly ascribed to postulated outside authorities hand, tend to feel that something is missing,
sub-cortical control early on, to an additional that must not be doubted. and aim for union of self with God or the uni-
super-ordinated pre-frontal control later. 97 The reference values are provided by a verse. And in atheistic religions the question
And in humans the latter is closely related to person (shaman, guru, etc.) and/or by narra- is also mostly seen in a unitary way.
the left hemisphere language function, which tives or texts that are declared to be binding; 100 Wood (C4, §0.1 ff) says that my view
among other things helps with social interac- thinking and behavior was guided by them. is immanent rather than transcendent –
tion and coordination. This is clearly a very Individual and social stability can to some assuming that he refers to God, I agree. I
complex task, more so for humans than for extent be obtained in that way, but subse- think for the reasons mentioned in §99, that
animals, due to the greatly increased social quently the restrictions for thinking may in case for religious purposes you use a belief
and intellectual possibilities. Much of psychi- prove to be a handicap as well, for various in God, it is more helpful not to see Him as
atric disability turns out to involve impair- endeavors, such as science, and sometimes MIR. But because they want certainty from
ment of pre-frontal function. Being in charge for socially important questions which need outside themselves, many theists might insist
requires using the available functions effec- to be dealt with (such as presently genetic on that (this is the Vatican’s opinion, for
tively. research, etc). Historically, the idea of Nature instance).
as MIR developed from that of God as MIR. 101 For scientific work it is a good idea to
Resuming steering (with our tools) 98 Chumakin (C3, C13, C21) largely remain aware that what we call MIR results
Und wir: Zuschauer, immer, überall, agrees with my paper, though coming from a from investment of our own structures with
dem allen zugewandt und nie hinaus! different point of view, and though he our own trust, i.e., reality-belief (as-if- or
Uns überfüllts. Wir ordnens. Es zerfällt. appears to consider “mind” to be pre-struc- working-MIR). This awareness can restore
Wir ordnens wieder und zerfallen selbst. tured (C13, §2). He suggests that “Science the agency to the scientists. That does not
Wer hat uns also umgedreht, daß wir, will do science and constructivism will do mean that they will then become idealists, or,
was wir auch tun, in jener Haltung sind humanities – we do not need the 0-D beyond that, even solipsists. It does mean
von einem welcher fortgeht? … approach, as we will not have to relate mate- that objectivity is a tool rather than referring
(Vom Ende der 8. Elegie Rilkes) rialism (realism) and idealism” (C13, §11). to a mind-independent source of truth, and
Here I disagree, since this implies a split of that the subject is a part of all experience.
95 Who has turned us around like this? The experience and activity into two areas that This means that exclusive (MIR-) objectivity
word-conceptual tools (including religious have nothing to do with each other. 0-D, as I is an error, not that all experience is only sub-
and scientific ones) may impose their own propose it, is an overall view for all experi- jective (cf. §11 to §14, §56, §107).

44 Constructivist Foundations
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102 Absolute beliefs can strengthen ethi- assumptions (a) that mind and brain are pri- soon, and this is what we should concentrate
cal conviction, since they eliminate doubt marily (ontologically) separate, à la Des- on (or else we may fall prey to electrical
(and facilitate fanaticism as well). But the rec- cartes, and (b) that science is defined by MIR- power failures, to someone’s programming
ognition that there are no ethics absolutes objectivity, that is, by traditional metaphys- errors, or to various absolute beliefs). It
does not imply moral arbitrariness (or “rela- ics. The subject then disappears necessarily. implies taking on some responsibilities that
tivism”), which would mean a lack of obliga- 107 If in contrast we see the separation as have traditionally been relegated to posited
tory guidelines. The reference values are col- pragmatic (secondary), as a working-propo- outside authorities. This is a matter of world-
lectively posited and made obligatory, and sition, the subject automatically is and wide negotiation rather than primarily of
although social construction is only one of the remains a part of all experience. And studies interpretation of sources of assumed cer-
forces at work in structuring, these days this of brain activity occur in the mind, not the tainty, such as religious or political texts, or
becomes a world-wide collective task. Tradi- mind in brain activity, whether or not it is a scientific knowledge, which may contradict
tional sacred texts are among the sources for topic of study. For objectivists, that may be an each other on some central questions. Reality
such guidelines. unfamiliar aspect: but because one cannot is a continuous task for structuring, not
103 As it turns out, however, humans re- leave the bubble of encompassing experience something one can find ready-made.
discover their leadership – actually that there (consciousness), it is impossible to look at
is no choice now but to reclaim it, because the mind from outside. The realist’s inability Epilogue: Footnotes to Plato?
absolutes are blind alleys. In a constructivist to understand this is a striking consequence 111 Pivnicki
ˇ (C24, §1) asks whether TA78 is
framework, Kant’s categorical imperative (or of thought-inversion. a presentation of contemporary philosophy.
the Golden Rule) can provide the method for 108 Suppose that in some time from now No, this would require several books to do,
ethical goal setting. Communal and global it will be possible to provide a complete and could obviously be much better achieved
agreements on such maxims become impor- simultaneous demonstration of the objective by a philosopher than by me. My presenta-
tant and difficult tasks. events going on during subjective experience tion is an attempt to deal with the mind-
104 McCarthy (C5, §17) says that in con- (such as electrical and chemical brain activity brain relation and related conceptual diffi-
structivism duty is imposed from outside – I both overall and at the cellular and molecular culties, and refers to a few authors only. Can
am not sure why he thinks so; invoking level). Will these events be identical with the we improve on Plato? (C24, §3) (Cicero’s
instructions from outside contradicts the subjective experience? To ask this question is question: num eloquentia Platonem superare
basic tenets of constructivism. to deny it (that is, in my opinion, but as men- possumus ?) – I am not sure that this should
tioned in §83 some insist that they are iden- be the principal goal, but Plato, like other
Physiology, scientific studies of tical). The only possible relationship between philosophers, has left us with a difficult prob-
consciousness, artificial intelligence, the two is that awareness of brain activity lem: what is metaphysics, why is it there, and
and subjective experience (including one’s own) occurs inside experi- what should we do with it?
105 So what should we make of the numerous ence, which is the only available starting 112 One can examine the metaphysics-
attempts to reduce subjective experience to point. In 0-D, physiological knowledge can question with respect to the first philosophy
physiological events in objective systems help to understand and deal with ourselves (that is, metaphysics) of Plato’s student Aris-
(such as the activity of neuronal networks, better: a formulation of this or similar type totle; this leads to a re-wording of some of the
synapses, dendrites, intracellular tubules, 30– could replace the intractable mind–brain themes of the present paper. For Aristotle,
40Hz electrical activity of the cortex, quan- problem (cf. §68, §86, §106), an artefact of physics (ta physika) are by nature (te physei)
tum events in the neurons, etc., etc.)? (See the MIR-view. later, but for us (hemin) earlier. Therefore,
Hameroff (2003) for a list of candidates for 109 Artificial intelligence research created because of the way we think, Aristotle pre-
Crick’s “neural correlates of consciousness”). much discussion in the 1950s and 1960s, and sents the origin (tas archas), namely the “first
106 All self-declared “scientific studies of many enthusiasts are still now at work in this philosophy” or metaphysics, after his writ-
consciousness” that I am aware of, including field. Recently the evaluations are more ings on physics. According to the studies of
the detailed conceptual studies of Metzinger restrained, confined to specific tasks, and Reiner (1954; see Müller R6), the order of his
(2003), imply the naïve ontological S–O split, some philosophers have even declared the AI books was not accidental, as had traditionally
and are therefore, in my opinion, not able to proposition to be incoherent, impossible, or been thought, but followed the sequence of
deal with the mind-brain question. Chalmers also immoral (cf. McCarthy 2004). AI efforts thinking as Aristotle understood it. He saw
(1995) had labeled it “the hard problem of are undertaken as extensions of human intel- the causally first thing, our understanding, as
consciousness” – “how physical processes in ligence, the aims and means of such machines being accessible to us only through (and
the brain give rise to conscious experience.” and programs are determined by people who therefore after) the causally later thing, that
But it is not just a hard problem; it is the design and finance them. is, natural entities.
wrong question and cannot be solved in prin- 113 This was, it would appear, a key for-
ciple (cf. also Müller (2001), and §85 above). Conclusion: Reality is labor-intensive mulation of the inversion of thinking (in the
The aim of such attempts is always a so-called 110 Human goal-setting, decision-making, sense of Rilke), which has had an important
“scientific” replacement of subjective experi- and responsibility are not going to be taken effect on the later philosophy of the Arabs,
ence by objective events, on the mistaken over by machines or other tools any time scholastic thinking (God as first MI-cause,

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 45

philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

Aristotle’s unmoved mover), and modern indoctrination. – And secondly, no longer do Ich kreise um Gott, um den uralten Turm,
occidental philosophy (nature as MIR- we claim that the later general structures are und ich kreise jahrtausendelang;
source). The aim was always to find a com- the “origin” or “cause” or “mover” of the ear- und ich weiß noch nicht: bin ich ein Falke, ein Sturm,
plete and certain outside system to rely on lier specific ones, but we use them as addi- oder ein großer Gesang.
and to be governed by. Even nowadays, theo- tional tools: for the overall integration of 121 In my translation:
ries of everything (in physics and cosmol- thinking (working-metaphysics, working- I circle about God, about the age-old tower,
ogy) are often viewed as having, or represent- religion). – Although arbitrariness of struc- and I circle for thousands of years,
ing, MIReality. They were, and still are, turing is more evident in the case of the gen- and I know not yet: am I a falcon, a storm,
ascribed this role despite their heterogeneous eral structures, all mental (mind-and- or a great song.
and often mutually contradictory contents. nature-and-all) structures, including the
114 Aristotle was, like Plato, a dualist, most automatic ones, are secondary to expe-
who believed in nature-in-itself; both fol- rience, and ad-hoc in essence. The – always
lowed here one of the threads of the revela- implied – ontological leap (to MIR-belief) is Herbert FJ Müller, born 1924 in Köln
tion to Parmenides by a goddess (“it is and reversible by conceptual analysis (fall-back (Cologne). After school and (1942–1945)
cannot not be”), while neglecting another onto as-if-MIR), or also by techniques like military service, studied medicine at Univer-
important one (“knowing and being are the meditation; these methods complement each sität Köln (1945–1951,; further
same”), which could have allowed consider- other. study of psychology and philosophy (Köln
ation of the structuring aspect. This omission 117 One needs to acknowledge that meta- and Bonn). From 1951, medical internship
resulted in a long-term derailment of con- physics-ontology is present in all thinking, in New Jersey, postgraduate training in psy-
ceptual understanding (no wonder White- and that it must be addressed in some way to chiatry, neurology, and electro-encephalog-
head observed that all occidental philosophy get out of the conceptual impasse, which is raphy at New York University, Universidade
amounted to footnotes to Plato). Consider- perhaps most directly evident in the mind- do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro), Düsseldorf, and
ing the events of the 20th century in science brain question. (since 1956) McGill University in Montreal
and elsewhere, we cannot afford that; and at 118 The preceding presentation is in part (now Associate Prof. of Psychiatry). Clinical
present this causes so many problems as to a mish-mash of phenomenology, psycholog- work at Douglas Hospital, Montreal, since
make a correction (from metaphysics to ical explanation, and a discussion of objective 1959, with emphasis on EEG and gero-psy-
working-metaphysics, from MIR to as-if- functions like electronics or physiology. I chiatry; presently still part-time. Published
MIR) mandatory. want to apologize for this only mildly: it can over 70 papers in these fields. – Studying the
115 In the corrected (0-D) view, one can be handled if one keeps in mind that all con- mind-brain relation, it became clear to me in
start with the same sequence of thinking, as cepts are human tools, phenomenological 1994 that for an access to this question, the
seen by Aristotle, from physics to general concepts just as objective ones, and also phys- notion of pre-structured mind-independent
understanding. Here the meaning would ical tools with and without built-in self-guid- reality must be abandoned. As this requires a
simply be that we structure specifics first, ance. In case this origin is kept in mind, there more general review of concept use, and of
many of them with a compelling feature of is no principal reason why, say, phenomeno- other fields of knowledge, I started editing the
perceptual gestalt-closure; only later can we logical and objective concepts should not be Karl Jaspers Forum in 1997;
deal with general principles. used together, although one has to pay atten- my aim was to examine this question and its
116 The difference between 0-D and the tion to the differences, since objectivity implications (Seven Target Articles in KJF, many
Aristotelian MIR-view is firstly that no longer implies an assumption of (as-if-)MIR, while discussions). In 1999, I became aware of rad-
do we try to find pre-existing entities outside: phenomenology does not. ical constructivism (chiefly the work of Ernst
we create, within experience, structures that 119 But I do want to apologize for repeti- von Glasersfeld), which has many features in
are initially determined by more automatic tiveness in my presentation (it is done in an common with my present view. A Symposium
completion and stabilisation (such as percep- effort to minimize misunderstandings); and on the mind-brain relation, in which Glasersfeld
tual gestalt-closure). Only then, by means of for any possible errors in interpretations, on participated, took place at the Douglas Hos-
extrapolation from gestalt-thinking, and my part, of the work of the authors I have pital, Montreal, in September 2001 (the
with the help of language (word-concepts), mentioned. papers and discussions are in KJF). My present
can we transcend ordinary experience and 120 One might compare the theme of the work concerns the conceptual basis of this
create more general structures like God and 8th Duinese Elegy with the one of an earlier point of view – which I label structuring with
Nature, which are also needed but require poem by Rilke (at age 24), from his “Stunden- zero-derivation or zero-reference – and its
more deliberate stabilisation (by doctrines buch” (1899/1936), which shows no concern relation to other views.
and theories) and often enforcement by with inversion:

46 Constructivist Foundations
philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

Public reviewing incommensurability in educational set- sfeld, E. von, (2004) L’approche construc-
tings. tiviste: vers une théorie des
Note:This is the list of comments and selected C37DY.htm représentations. In: Jonnaert, P. & Mas-
responses of the author. that were used to aug- C40 Wood, G. C. (2005) Biological diverticu- ciotra, D. (eds.) Constructivisme, choix
ment the line of argumentation of the paper. lum. Comment to R15. contemporains. Hommage à Ernst von
Since not all comments were used and the kjf/78-C40WO.htm Glasersfeld. Presses de l’Université du
numbering should stay in sync with the original R2 Müller, H. F. J. (2005) Reality and ghosts. Québec: Sainte Foy, pp. 213–224.
number in the Karl Jaspers Forum, the number- Hameroff, S. (2003) Heading in the wrong
ing here is non-consecutive. R6 Müller, H. F. J. (2005) Reiner on Aristotle’s direction. Review of Cristof Koch’s “Quest
metaphysics. for consciousness.” Science & Conscious-
C1 van der Meijden, A. (2005) “The in-verse.” R6PIV.htm ness Review 2. http:// R8 Müller, H. F. J. (2005) 0-D for evolution articles/20041102.html
C2 McCarthy, M. (2005) On the kybernetes. and religion (The Vatican and Jaspers). Jaspers, K. (1947) Von der Wahrheit. Piper: München, Zürich.
C3 Chumakin, M. (2005) How ideal phe- R9 Müller, H. F. J. (2005) The 0-d umbrella in Jaspers, K. (1949) Vom Ursprung und Ziel der
nomena are real. education (Absolutes if necessary but not Geschichte. Fischer Bücherei: Frankfurt &
C3CHU.htm necessarily absolutes). Hamburg. Reprinted in 1955 by R. Piper &
C4 Wood, G. C. (2005) Transcendence, etc. kjf/78-R9POR.htm Co: München. English translation by M. R12 Müller, H. F. J. (2005) Education: Con- Bullock: (1953) The origin and goal of
C5 McCarthy, M. (2005) Steering through the struction by individuals versus structure- History. Yale University Press: New Haven.
ranges of knowledge. teaching. Johnson, D. K. (2004) The view from some-
kjf/78-C5MCC.htm R12DY.htm where: A philosophical critique of radical
C8 Glasersfeld, E. von (2005) Subject/object R13 Müller, H. F. J. (2005) Epistemological constructivism. KJF Forum TA 75. http://
split. asymmetry.
C8GLA.htm R13NI.htm Lakoff, G. & Núñez, R. E. (2000) Where math-
C12 Wood, G. C. (2005) Reality as I see it. R14 Müller, H. F. J. (2005) Mid-course cor- ematics comes from. How the embodied
Comment to R3. rection (on Diettrich’s epistemology). mind brings mathematics into being.
C12WO.htm Basic Books: New York.
C13 Chumakin, M. (2005) A realist approach R16 Müller, H. F. J. (2005) On the anti-con- Koch, C. (2004) Thinking about the con-
to mind/brain problem. Comment to R2. structivist view of Robert Nola. http:// scious mind. A review of Mind –An intro- duction by John Searle. Science 306: 979–
C15 Adams, W. A. (2005) Four premises in 980
search of an explanation. Comment on R3 McCarthy, J. (2004) What is artificial intelli-
to C8 by Glasersfeld. gence?
kjf/78-C15AD.htm References jmc/whatisai/whatisai.html
C17 McCarthy, M. (2005) Why consciousness Metzinger, T. (2003) Phenomenal transpar-
should not be equated with experience. Chalmers, D. J. (1995) The puzzle of con- ency and cognitive self-reference. Phe-
Comment to R1. scious experience. Scientific American nomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 2:
C17MC.htm 273: 80–86. 353–393. Reprinted in: (2004) Karl Jaspers
C21 Chumakin, M., Models. Comment to Crick, F. (1994) The astonishing hypothesis. Forum TA67,
R2. Scribner’s: New York. TAMET.htm
C22 van der Meijden, A. (2005) Rilke, mys- Damasio, A. R. (1994) Descartes’ error. Emo- Müller, H. F. J. (1997) Is the mind real? Karl
tics, and anaesthesia. tion, reason, and the human brain. Quill, Jaspers Forum TA1.
kjf/78-C22ME.htm Harper Collins: New York, pp. 245–252. 1-TA12.htm
C24 Pivnicki,
ˇ D. (2005) Response, but no Foerster, H. von & Glasersfeld, E. von (1999) Müller, H. F. J. (2000) Concept-dynamics and
question. Wie wir uns erfinden. Carl-Auer-Systeme the mind-brain question. Karl Jaspers
C24PI.htm Verlag: Heidelberg. Forum TA32.
C32 Dykstra, D. I. Jr. (2005) The problem of Glasersfeld, E. von (2004) The constructivist TAMUL.htm
incommensurability in debates on educa- approach: Toward a theory of representa- Müller, H. F. J. (2001) Brain in mind. Karl Jas-
tion (and other issues). Comment to R9. tion. Karl Jaspers Forum TA73. http:// pers Forum TA45. This is my 45-TAMUL.htm
C33 Nixon, G. (2005) 0-D and absolutes in translation, corrected by the author, of a Müller, H. F. J. (2003) Effect of working ontol-
education. lecture given by von Glasersfeld at the Uni- ogy on some conceptual Puzzles. Karl Jas-
C33NI.htm versité du Québec à Montréal on 21 pers Forum TA57.
C37 Dykstra, D. I. Jr. (2005) Challenge of November 1985, and published as : Glaser- 57-TAMUL.htm

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 47

philosophical-epistemological epistemic structuring

Reiner, H. (1954) Die Entstehung und Rilke, R. M. (1949) Die Achte Duineser Elegie Strawson, G. (2004) A fallacy of our age. Not
ursprüngliche Bedeutung des Namens (7–8 February 1922). Insel-Verlag: Reut- every life is a narrative. Times Literary
Metaphysik. Zeitschrift für philoso- lingen. German: http://www.phil-fak.uni- Supplement, 15 October 2004, p. 13.
phische Forschung 8: 210–237. English Wiener, N. (1954) The human use of human
translation: (1990) The emergence and riduin08.htm – English translation by Ali- beings. Second Edition Revised. Double-
original meaning of the name “metaphys- son Croggon: http://www.thedrunken- day Anchor Books: Garden City.
ics.” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal – English translation Wright, R. (2004) Fool’s paradise. Easter
13: 23–53. by Robert Hunter: Island’s unlearned lesson. Times Literary
Rilke, R. M. (1936) Das Stundenbuch. Insel- RobertHunterArchive/files/Poetry/Ele- Supplement, 19 November 2004, p. 16.
Verlag: Leipzig. [These poems were writ- gies/elegy8.html
ten in 3 volumes, from 1899 to 1903. The Rioux-Soucy, L.-M. (2004) Mon voisin est un
first volume, from which the quoted poem cyborg. Le Devoir (Montréal), 5 Nov 2004.
is taken, has the title “Vom moenchischen Searle, J.R. (2004) Mind: A brief introduction. Received: 18 September 2005
Leben”. The poems were dedicated to Lou Oxford University Press: New York. Accepted: 19 October 2005

48 Constructivist Foundations
education radical constructivism

Against Realist Instruction:

Superficial Success Masking
Catastrophic Failure and an Alternative
Dewey I. Dykstra, Jr. A Boise State University,

and because the development of understand-

Purpose: Often radical constructivists are confronted with arguments why radical con- ing is not central to education as we know it,
structivism is wrong.The present work presents a radical constructivist alternative to such his mentors, though sincere, were unable to
arguments: a comparison of the results of two instructional practices, the standard, realist- assist him in some way that would settle his
based instruction and a radical constructivist-based instruction, both in physics courses. dissatisfaction.
Design: Evidence from many studies of student conceptions in standard instruction (Duit
2004) is taken into account. In addition, diagnostic data, pre and post instruction, were
collected from over 1,000 students in multiple institutions across the U. S. over a period Understanding
of about 15 years via an established diagnostic of conceptual understanding of motion and
force. Findings: Evidence from many studies of student conceptions in standard instruction When students can repeat something verbatim,
(Duit, 2004) is that little or no change in student conceptions happens in standard instruc- it is obvious that they have learned it. Whether
tion. About half the students in the particular study reported, all science and engineering they have understood it, is a question these tests
majors, experienced standard, realist-based instruction and show an average effect size of avoid. (Ernst von Glasersfeld 2001)
0.6 standard deviations and an average normalized gain of 15%.The other half of the stu-
dents, none of whom were science and engineering majors, experienced radical construc- What might be meant by understanding? Von
tivist-based instruction and show an average effect size over 2.5 standard deviations and an Glasersfeld suggests that understanding is
average normalized gain over 60%. Diagnostic pre scores were nearly the same for both avoided in typical test results. Gardner makes
groups. Practical implications:The outcome, that students, neither science nor engineer- a kind of operational definition.
ing majors, made changes in understanding foundational topics in physics far greater than “…students who receive honor grades in
science and engineering students, poses (1) an ethical challenge to the continued adherence college-level physics courses are frequently
to standard, realist-based instructional practices and (2) an intellectual challenge to the unable to solve basic problems and questions
usefulness and appropriateness of the elitist-realist paradigm on which such standard encountered in a form slightly different from
instruction is based. Conclusions:This radical constructivist argument uses the effect of that on which they have been formally
paradigms to judge their pragmatic value, not their truth-value. Based on pragmatic value, instructed and tested.
radical constructivism results in superior outcomes when applied to physics instruction. “If, when the circumstances of testing are
The approach to instruction can be applied generally in education. slightly altered, the sought-after competence
Key words: elitism, physics, paradigm, realism. can no longer be documented, then under-
standing—in any reasonable sense of the
term—has simply not been achieved.”
Prologue Introduction (Howard Gardner 1991), pp. 3 and 6)
In Radical Constructivism (RC) (Glasersfeld In the Fall of 1969 a young man started teach- The orientation to the meaning of under-
1991) we judge our understanding by what ing high school physics. He believed that the standing in the present work is focused on the
can be accomplished using that understand- students should leave an instructional experi- nature of a person’s understanding, not on the
ing. Realists do not understand the notion ence understanding the phenomena studied nature of what might be claimed to be inde-
that RC is not about “truth,” but about fit to differently than they began the instructional pendent of that person. Hence, if one observes
experience. In this article, we look at evidence experience. As it turns out, this was naïve, but another to act in a certain way in some context,
in educational settings. While the evidence for him it was the point of teaching and edu- one can formulate an explanation, a con-
will be mostly from physics education, what is cation. He quickly realized it was not happen- structed understanding, under which the
being described is not unique to the results of ing in his own classroom and, as we shall see, other person seems to be operating by a pro-
physics instruction. Education as we know it later he and others found it does not happen cess known as abduction. (Peirce 1955) If, later
today is based in realism. How do the results in most classrooms. As a new teacher, he had in another context, one’s explanation of the
of this education as we know it compare with mentors who tried to help. Because at the time other fits the other’s understanding, then it is
results of education based in RC? he could not articulate what the problem was reasonable to be able to predict the behavior of

Constructivist Foundations 2005, vol. 1, no. 1 49

education radical constructivism

the other. If the other person does indeed students from a wide variety of courses con- now including more than 6,400 entries (Duit
behave in the fashion predicted, then one can fused the concepts of velocity and accelera- 2004). All of the entries that document
make the claim that it is as if the constructed tion. … At the completion of instruction, change in students’ conceptions reveal that
understanding is present in the other. If the fewer than half of the students demonstrated little or no change happens when students
observed behavior differs from the prediction, sufficient qualitative understanding of accel- experience even the best of standard science
then one can make the claim that the con- eration as a ratio to be able to apply this con- instruction, not just physics. The items in the
structed understanding does not appear to be cept in a real situation. Even with assistance in bibliography come from a variety of coun-
present in the other. These constructed mental making the necessary observations, these stu- tries, in both hemispheres.
models of the understanding of others are the dents were unable to combine this informa- Entries in this bibliography now extend
closest we can come to knowing the under- tion in a manner that permitted successful back to 1904. What can be called person-on-
standing of others. Descriptions of such comparison of two accelerations.” (Trow- the-street (pots) conceptions of natural phe-
understandings that can be seen to be explana- bridge & McDermott 1981) nomena have been documented in student
tions of the behaviors of others in the case of behavior and interviews over a full century.
force and motion are given later in this article. Electric circuits. “We have examined students’ Instruction has changed little since well
explanations of an extremely simple electric before that time—it still follows the standard
circuit, one that involved only three major inform, verify, practice model. It is difficult not
On the prevalence of components. We found that many students to conclude that…
were unable to interpret the circuit correctly. …in all science instruction for more than a
change in understanding … One suspects, therefore, that a significant century, the result has been little or no change
in physics instruction proportion of students in physics courses will in student understanding of the phenomena
have this type of difficulty. Even more dis- studied.
Early work turbing is the fact that the misconception per-
sisted in some students who had been An insidious change in understanding
By 1980, this same young man had taught through a calculus-based course in electricity – the affective side
high school for 4 years, completed graduate which included five experiments on electric While standard physics teaching seems to be
work in Physics and taken a position in a uni- circuits.” (Fredette & Clement 1981) leaving students’ conceptions of the physical
versity Physics Department. At about the world unchanged, it is not leaving students
same time he earned his doctorate, articles Real image formation. “It was clear from the unchanged in other important respects. Only a
were beginning to appear in journals describ- interviews with the post-students that it is tiny percentage leaves such instruction with
ing students’ understanding of topics in phys- probably not uncommon to emerge from an positive beliefs about either themselves or the
ics. In some of these articles the following introductory physics course without under- field of physics.
observations were expressed: standing the essential role of a converging lens “On est frappés par la récurrence des mots
or a concave mirror in the formation of a real qui désignent l’expérience des mathéma-
Kinematics-velocity. “Our research also has image… There is often a tacit assumption that tiques et ses souvenirs: dictature, répulsion,
provided evidence that for some students cer- students who have performed satisfactorily in terrorisme, couperet, cauchemar, mathopho-
tain preconceptions may be remarkably per- the geometrical optics portion of an intro- bie; et en même temps: inintérêt, application
sistent. As mentioned above, even on post- ductory physics course can respond correctly mécanique de regles, ennui profond. Il en va
course interviews, when difficulties occurred to the basic questions presented at the begin- largement de même pour les sciences, en par-
they could be traced to the same confusion ning of this paper. The discussion above dem- ticulier pour la physique, que touts les
between speed and position that had been onstrates that, although they might have been enquêtes désignent comme la discipline ayant
demonstrated during pre-course interviews. able to give correct verbal responses to these laissé les plus mauvais souvenirs et provo-
The belief that a position criterion may be questions, the students who participated in quant apres coup le plus de réactions hostiles,
used to compare relative velocities seemed to our study were frequently unable to relate voire agressives.”
remain intact in some students even after sev- their knowledge to simple, but real, optical “One is struck by the prevalence of partic-
eral weeks of instruction.” (Trowbridge & systems.” (Goldberg & McDermott 1987) ular words which describe the experience of
McDermott 1980) mathematics and memories of it: dictatorial,
Scope of findings repulsion, terror, nightmare, math-phobia
Kinematics-acceleration. The conceptual dif- By 1990 many such articles had been pub- and at the same time: disinterest, mechanical
ficulties with acceleration that were encoun- lished in many journals and books were being application of rules, profound boredom. It is
tered by the students in our study appeared to written on the topic of students’ conceptions largely the same in the case of the sciences, in
be very persistent. Often, as illustrated by the in science. Several groups had been maintain- particular with physics, which all the inter-
pairs of interview excerpts on Acceleration ing bibliographies of these works in the mid- viewees describe as the discipline that gives
Comparison Task 1, the procedures used by a dle 1980’s including our young man, now the worst memories and provokes the most
particular student were the same before and older. These efforts were combined and can hostile, even aggressive, reactions.” (Astolfi
after instruction. … A significant number of be found in a regularly updated bibliography 1997, translation by the author)

50 Constructivist Foundations
education radical constructivism

Very successful students, as judged by their effective at convincing people early of this physical world. They are expected to carry out
high school physics teachers, speaking near characterization that few ever experience laboratory activities in which what they have
the end of their high school physics course: instruction on topics in physics by someone been informed is supposed to be verified.
“I used to love math and science. ... Now I who specializes in teaching such topics. Just They are expected to solve homework prob-
just want to get through. I am always being on the order of 25% of high school graduates lems or exercises in which they are to practice
told what to do, what to think. There’s no out- take physics in U.S. high schools. As evi- what they have learned.
let. I am supposed to absorb someone else’s denced in the above comments, even taking
information and then I realized it’s not for physics from such a specialist may only make 1. The diagnostic. The diagnostic, the Force
me. the result worse. What is of fundamental and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE)
“I listen all week, then when we do the lab, importance here is not the flow of people into (Thornton & Sokolof 1998), is a set of multi-
there are really no surprises. ... It took me a the profession of physics, but the negative, ple-choice questions in which the questions
real long time to get into physics. It almost elitist lesson nearly all of the students con- and the sets of choices have been crafted to
seems that in physics you can figure out the clude about themselves—a lesson as we shall reveal students’ conceptions about force and
lab without actually doing it, which isn’t very see is questionable at best. its relationship to motion and their concep-
motivating. It just seems like, maybe it’s the tions about motion. The diagnostic has the
way it’s set up, but I pay attention all week and A closer look at the cognitive aspect purpose of discerning the nature of the stu-
I have a general idea of what’s going on. The During the 1990’s several diagnostics of stu- dent’s conceptions of force and motion, not
lab is on a Thursday, toward the end of the dent conceptions concerning various topics whether a student knows the “right” answers
week, so...we build up to the lab. ... We, my in physics were developed. One of these was according to a physicist. The process of devel-
group, we use what we learned in our notes, used before and after science and engineering opment, involving several thousand students,
the equations and stuff, to fix up our lab students studied motion and force in intro- included collecting free-form responses to
results. Most of the time we read the lab back- ductory physics courses from institutions questions. Individual interviews were con-
wards. I don’t know if that’s cheating but he across the U. S. over a period of a dozen years. ducted with students concerning their under-
[the teacher] sets himself up that way.” Most of the institutions from
(McDonnell 2005, p. 584). which the data was received are
College students responding about their large state supported universi-
experience in introductory physics and chem- ties of the sort producing the
istry courses at the university level: bulk of the engineering and sci-
“I think the students around me are having ence graduates in the U. S.
the same sort of thought-provoking questions Pre and post data were pro-
about the material that I put into my journal, vided from both of two different
but under time pressure they don’t pursue levels of introductory physics at
them, [and] eventually they learn to disregard the university level. One level of
“extraneous” thoughts and to stick only to the course is one involving only
details of what they’ll need to know for the algebra and trigonometry and is
exam. Since the only feedback we get is on the typically taken by majors in biol-
homework assignments, the students cannot ogy, geology, kinesiology, con-
help but conclude that their ability to solve struction management, and pre-
problems is the only important goal of this health professions, such as pre-
class. medical. The other level of intro-
“[Another criticizes] …a course design ductory physics course involves
that assumes that everyone in the class has the calculus and is taken by
already decided to be a physicist and wants to majors in physics, chemistry,
be trained, not educated, in the subject…” geophysics, and engineering.
(Tobias 1990, pp. 37 and 41) The same topics are treated and
The last four of these comments were col- similar laboratory exercises and
lected in studies involving students with cre- homework problems are carried
dentials typical of students who would do well out. The significant difference
in the science and engineering. Clearly they between these two courses is the Figure 1: This is a poster made by students at the very
left their experience with a less than positive level of mathematics. The teach- beginning of their study of the nature of force. Most
attitude about physics as a field of study. ing practices in the courses are students regardless of the introductory course, whether
Sadly, the vast majority of those who expe- essentially the same. Students they are in secondary school or college make very
rience instruction in science leave the experi- are expected to attend lecture similar posters in that they express the person-on-the-
ence believing they are not good at science, and read a textbook by which street (pots) view of the nature of force.
physics in particular. In fact our system is so they are informed about the

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 51

education radical constructivism

the student consistent with a Newto- New view rests on this distinction between
nian-like (New) view of force and velocity and this particular notion of acceler-
motion. ation as any change in velocity. In the pots
view such a distinction does not exist. The
2. Two views of force and motion. These nature of force in the two views is very differ-
two conceptions of force and its rela- ent because what is being explained by the two
tionship to motion can be briefly views of force, the velocity in one and the
described in the following ways. In the acceleration in the other, is profoundly differ-
pots view, force is the explanation of ent. In the actions of a person holding the pots
motion or velocity. In this view there is view of force, the notion of acceleration used
always a force in the direction of motion in the New view of force does not appear to
and the magnitude of the velocity varies exist. Trowbridge and McDermott (1981)
as the magnitude of this force. Figure 1 is refer to this in the quotation from their paper
from a poster made by a group of four about student conceptions of acceleration
students at the beginning of their study given earlier in this article.
of the nature of force. In the New view,
net force is the explanation of accelera- 3. Evidence of change in science and engineer-
tion. The term, net force, refers to the ing majors in standard physics instruction.
aggregate effect of all the forces that hap- Table 1 gives some results from this study.
pen to be acting on an object at any point Only data from students for whom there was
in time. In this view the acceleration is both pre and post data was included. The
Figure 2:This poster was made by non- always in the direction of the net force table indicates the type of physics course, the
science/non-engineering students in a and, as the magnitude of the net force general location of the institution, the year in
conceptual physics course at the end of their varies, so does the magnitude of the which the data was collected and the number
study of the nature of force in an alternative acceleration. Figure 2 is from a poster of students in each course.
approach to physics teaching. It reveals that made by non-science/non-engineering It is clear that the initial (pre) person-on-
these students appear to understand the students at the end of their study of the the-street (pots) view average score is rela-
Newtonian-like (New) view of the nature of nature of force. It suggests that an tively high (about 10 out of 15) and the initial
force and are aware of the distinction between understanding of these two views of (pre) Newtonian-like (New) view average
it and the pots view. Typical science or thinking about force and how these two score is very low (0.6–2.6 out of 15). Scores in
engineering students at the end of standard views contrast is present in the group of these ranges might reasonably be expected in
physics instruction on the nature of force are not four students who made the poster. the pre diagnostic, if there had been no previ-
likely to depict a New view, nor be aware of the view do not generally make much ous instruction. But, one should keep in mind
distinctions between the views demonstrated conceptual distinction between motion that these students experienced the typical
by the students who made this poster. and changing motion; that is, between curriculum in the U. S. They experienced one
velocity and acceleration. Acceleration or more instructional sequences on forces:
for them is a kind of special case of first, in elementary school (grades 1–6, ages
standing of the questions and reasons for the motion: velocity in which the magnitude of about 6–12), another in 8th or 9th grade (ages
choices they selected. The FMCE has ques- the velocity is increasing. In this view deceler- about 14–16) and at least 25% of them
tions concerning velocity, acceleration, and ation is a special case of velocity in which the received instruction on these topics in high
what physicists would refer to as Newton’s magnitude of the velocity is decreasing. When school physics (normally 12th grade, age
first and second laws of motion, Newton’s the velocity is zero or constant, there can be about 18). Because the students in this part of
third law of motion, and mechanical energy. neither acceleration nor deceleration, hence the study are all science or engineering
On each topic there are at least 5 questions both have magnitudes of zero. majors, it is probable that more than 25% of
and several have in excess of 10 questions. Persons who appear to use the New view them took a physics course in high school.
There is a mix of questions involving graphs parse motion differently. For them all changes The changes from pre to post scores are
of either force or motion and questions that in motion, that is, changes in velocity, are in not particularly large. The pots view scores
do not involve graphs. some sense equivalent and distinct from the drop from 9 or 10 down to 7 or 8 out of 15.
Of the 21 questions on Newton’s first and motion or velocity itself. This is much like the The New view scores rise from 1 or 2 up to 3
second laws, 17 were used to formulate two distinction between a function and its deriva- or 5 out of 15. This final outcome does not
15-point scales. One of these corresponds to tive in the calculus, but familiarity with the convince one that any significant number of
the choices made by the student consistent calculus is unnecessary to form this distinc- the students in these courses leave with an
with the typical person-on-the-street (pots) tion about motion. understanding of the New view concepts
view of force and motion. The other 15-point The two views are conceptually funda- explicitly taught by Ph. D. physicists and their
scale corresponding to the choices made by mentally different from each other in that the graduate students. These students still appar-

52 Constructivist Foundations
education radical constructivism

ently think about the world in terms of the

Whole class scores Average Scores Effect Size Normalized
pots view.
Effect size refers to the size of the difference Pre (0–15) Post (0–15) (st dev) Loss Gain
in the class average diagnostic scores, post
Year Term N pots New pots New pots New <L> <g>
minus pre, in units of the standard deviation
of the scores. An effect size of 0.6, the average Algebra–Trig Level Intro Physics
here, is often considered in the moderate West Coast Public Univ. A
range for educational research. Given the
actual final performance of the students, such 1990 99 10.1 1.5 8.5 3.3 –0.47 0.59 –0.16 0.13
an effect size can hardly be called laudable, “Prairie State” Public Univ.
especially in the New view score.
Normalized gain and loss are measures of 2002 SP 112 10.3 0.9 9 2.7 –0.40 0.66 –0.13 0.13
the fraction of the possible gain or loss that Calculus Level Intro Physics
could occur in the scores. In Table 1 the nor-
malized loss is calculated on the pots view North East State Public Univ.
scores. Typically for a whole class average in 1998 72 9.6 1.7 8.5 3.5 –0.30 0.47 –0.11 0.14
these examples of standard physics instruc-
West Coast Public Univ. B
tion, the pots view score drops. The normal-
ized loss is calculated to give a negative result 1999 Wint. 87 9.3 2.6 6.5 5.4 –0.62 0.60 –0.30 0.26
when the pots view score drops. The normal-
1999 SP 73 9.1 2.3 7.6 4.0 –0.36 0.38 –0.17 0.13
ized gain is calculated on the New view scores.
A typical normalized gain of 0.15, the average 2000 SP 115 9.2 2.4 7.2 4.8 –0.50 0.59 –0.21 0.19
seen here, or about 15% might be acceptable, West Coast Private Univ.
if the pre New view score were high. Since this
is not the case, a normalized gain in New view 2000 SP 38 9.8 0.6 9.6 1.7 –0.08 0.54 –0.03 0.09
score of 15% is wholly unacceptable. We need
Table 1: Pre–Post Data, Measures of change in normal instruction, science and
to be seeing effect sizes and normalized gains
engineering majors. pots: person-on-the-street view of force and motion; New: Newtonian-
that are many times larger, if the standard
like view of force and motion; N refers to the number of matched pairs of data from each class.
deviations remain similar.
Effect size is the post score minus the pre score, the quantity divided by the pooled standard
These results are consistent with reports
deviation. Normalized loss is the post pots score minus the pre pots score, the quantity divided
in the bibliography. They appear to be repro-
by the maximum the pots score could go down (to zero). Normalized gain is post New score
duced routinely every semester in most loca-
minus the pre New score, the quantity divided by the maximum the New score could go up
tions, in the U. S. and in many other locations
(15 minus the pre New score).
around the world. What is taught in standard
physics instruction is not understood by an
overwhelming majority of the students. It is intent, maybe we should look at what is hap-
important to remember the changes seen Realism in instruction pening:
here are the third or fourth attempt to teach [ Very little change in understanding of
these ideas to students considered to be, as Evidence calling for explanation physical phenomena occurs as a result of
science and engineering majors, among The tacit assumption and sometimes physics teaching.
those capable of learning this material. explicit characterization of physics teaching [ Most people we subject to this instruction
Apparently most students find the experience seems to be that we present content so that leave with an unrealistic view of the enter-
of physics instruction distasteful and dis- students can receive it with the idea that they prise of physics, that it is all mathematics
couraging. All of the students learn from hold on to it. The drive is to present the con- and completely determined by measure-
these experiences that there are a very select tent to the students so that they can have it. ments.
few who can make sense of physics, but the The implications being that (1) they must be [ Most leave the instruction believing they
vast majority cannot. presented the content in order to have it and are not capable of understanding physical
The outcome of standard instruction in (2) that the content can be presented in such phenomena. They must rely on those
physics is a spectacular failure and has an a way that it is possible for the students to who are capable of such understanding
appalling effect on society in general. We fail receive it. for knowledge of the truth about the phe-
to teach what we intend. Instead, we manage One could characterize physics teaching in nomena.
to teach most people they are on the lower this view as content-driven. But, if this really is [ Typical classroom activities and exams in
rung of a caste system in which they are the case, why is it that so many students have physics do not reveal the presence or
dependent on a higher caste for declarations failed to get it for so long with nothing being absence of changed understanding of the
of the truth. done about it? Instead of asking what is the phenomena.

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education radical constructivism

[ Since around 1980, what is now referred to minds…with an ever growing precision by Situations describable as realist paradigms
as the physics education research (PER) the subtle play of theory and experiment.” are very possibly unique. The underlying
community has been bringing to our (Torre & Zamorano 2001, p. 103) beliefs and characterizations of the world in
attention the finding that most students That this knowledge can be transmitted is such paradigms are considered statements of
leave physics instruction not understand- clear in that it is to be presented. Apparently “objective truth.” Hence, the whole system of
ing what has been taught. In addition to approved methods have passed the criterion of such paradigms is not considered a construct
the sources already cited, one can find being effective transmissions of knowledge. In by the true believers. Instead, it is the truth.
papers and sessions presented at meetings this program such knowledge apparently can Such paradigms are not ideologies according
of the American Association of Physics exist in the symbols (words, sounds, gestures) the their practitioners, because the elements
Teachers, the American Educational used in the presentation. It also apparently that constitute the system are statements of
Research Association and the National exists in nature independent of the student truth. As truth, once established, it is not to be
Association for Research in Science Teach- since what is presented is to be verified in lab- questioned.
ing since the late 1970’s on this issue. oratory experiments or exercises. We see then that the meaning of content-
[ As a consequence of physics teaching hav- It is acknowledged that not all can receive driven as applied to this description of physics
ing been the same, inform, verify, practice the transmitted knowledge effectively. To teaching is the drive to present the content.
method for numerous generations, account for this the construct, deserving, is One must cover the subject. It is not about stu-
change in understanding in physics applied. If one is deserving, then one can effec- dents “getting” the content. Some more consci-
courses has been lacking possibly for cen- tively receive the transmitted knowledge. To entious of the practitioners of the paradigm
turies. be deserving one must first have the mental may tweak the methods and take very small
[ In that time many sincere, diligent, very capacity and then one must work diligently liberties with what portions of the canon are
intelligent people have taught physics, yet enough to be successful at “getting” what has presented to see if a few more of the deserving
standard classroom activity and exams in been transmitted or can be seen in nature. can be uncovered. This experimentation is
physics have been crafted which do not In this program the teacher’s responsibility limited. One who goes too far runs the risk of
reveal whether or not change in under- is to present the established knowledge by being accused of heresy. Such pressure is
standing has occurred. None of these peo- approved methods. This is frequently put as to always carried out in the name of objectivity,
ple seem to have noticed the general lack of expose the students to the knowledge. At this since the ideology of the paradigm is that there
change in understanding of the phenom- point the teacher’s job is essentially com- is no ideology to the paradigm.
ena about which they teach. pleted. Whether or not a student “gets” the To prepare a physics teacher in this para-
[ Since the late 1970’s a number of very vocal knowledge is out of the teacher’s hands. The digm, we must first make sure that person is in
members of the physics teaching commu- student is either deserving or not. Maybe the possession of the canon. Without this, what
nity have openly dismissed the research teacher can influence students to be diligent or would be presented is false, corrupt or incom-
results and alternative teaching practices work hard, but the mental capacity part was plete. In the U. S. we expect the potential
showing vastly improved learning results, set before the teacher comes in contact with teacher to take as many as possible of the phys-
for example Geilker (1997), Erlich (2002), the student. ics courses a “real” physics major takes. Then,
Cromer (1997) and Aldridge (1995). It is important to notice that this program we spend a semester teaching this person
[ Alternative approaches to teaching physics also implies a concept of the nature of people. approved methods of presentation. This is
demonstrated to result in significant A few people are deserving, but most are not. called a “methods” course. We give them a lit-
change in understanding are ignored and This is an elitist notion of people. Some people tle practice and a chance to show they can exe-
resisted. Physics is still mostly taught as it can “get” it but most cannot – but that’s okay, cute the methods that have been taught. This
was for centuries before 1980. we can’t all be physicists (sic). is called “student teaching” in the U.S. When
This program is an expression of teaching teacher candidates can repeat back the canon
An explanation within a realist, elitist paradigm. Being a par- including the proscribed skills and execute the
It seems in spite of the stated intent, what is adigm in the Kuhnian sense, it explains all rel- methods of presentation, then we certify them
actually happening is better described in evant observations. The paradigm defines to be teachers of physics. We have an approved
another way. A better description would be to what observations have sufficient status to be practitioner of the paradigm.
describe the teaching of physics as: addressed in the paradigm and what observa- From within the paradigm just described,
Physics teaching is the presentation of the tions do not. It is a complete system within using T. S. Kuhn’s terms, the normal science is
established canon by approved methods itself. There is no need to ask why so few “get” that this is the way things are. We cannot, but
for the benefit of the deserving. the transmitted knowledge. Von Glasersfeld’s continue to refine our present understanding
question: “…but do they really understand?” as we approach ever more closely the truth. We
Embedded in this program is a realist is irrelevant and non sequitur. To question the are closer now than we were a decade past.
notion of the nature of the knowledge that approved methods or not be driven to present Things are just this way.
constitutes the canon. the canon is heresy within the paradigm. This We can judge this paradigm by its effect on
“…we postulate the objective existence of paradigm construct explains the observations society. Its system fails students. Students leave
physical reality that can be known to our listed above. instruction with the same understanding of

54 Constructivist Foundations
education radical constructivism

the phenomena as they began the instruction.

Most of the students learn that they are not Whole class scores Scatter Plot Averages Effect Size Normalized
among the deserving. It fails society in that it Pre (0–15) Post (0–15) (st dev) Loss Gain
promotes elitism, creating an artificial caste
Year Term N pots New pots New pots New <L> <g>
system, and renders most members of society
intellectually stunted or handicapped. Conceptual Physics, College Level
Intermountain State University
An alternative paradigm 2000 FL 90 9.3 0.8 2.5 9.2 –2.20 2.50 –0.66 0.59
2001 SP 87 9.8 0.8 2.2 9.6 –2.40 2.40 –0.74 0.62
As it turns out, the young physics teacher, now
older, started out, without realizing it, on the 2002 FL 66 9.4 0.8 2.2 8.8 –2.19 2.26 –0.72 0.57
outside of the established paradigm. He mis- 2004 SP 69 7.9 2.2 1.8 10.8 –1.85 2.31 –0.78 0.67
takenly thought the point of teaching was that
students develop new understanding as a 2005 SP 53 9.9 0.8 1.5 11.1 –3.08 3.38 –0.85 0.73
result of their experience in the classroom. High School Level
For him the typical outcomes of conventional
teaching were disturbing. Without yet being North Central State High School
able to articulate the nature of this anxiety, he 2001 FLa 23 11.3 0.6 0.6 13.3 –5.4 6.3 –0.95 0.89
searched for an answer. He found it when the
2001 FLb 24 10.6 0.9 0.8 13.1 –3.7 6.1 –0.93 0.86
work of the Genetic Epistemologist, Jean
Piaget, was described so that he could see it as
a theory base from which to operate in the Table 2: Pre–Post Data, Measures of change in alternative instruction, non–
classroom. (Fuller, Karplus & Lawson 1977) science, non–engineering majors.
In a sense this theory base would enable him
to do science as he taught with the goal of A radical constructivist paradigm that give such declarative statements meaning
empowering his students to develop new This alternative teaching practice is embed- to the maker of such statements. This explan-
understanding. ded in a radical constructivist (RC) paradigm. atory knowledge exists only in the mind of
(Glasersfeld 1991) In this paradigm the each individual as a constructed mental
A different teaching practice nature of knowledge is incommensurate with entity. As such, this knowledge cannot be
Fortunately in addition to being able to study that of the realist-elitist paradigm described transmitted. It is a consequence of the condi-
Piaget’s ideas, the young man benefited from above. In this RC paradigm, knowledge can tion that meaning exists nowhere but in the
close mentoring contact with a number of be divided into two types. One is experience, mind of the individual, that for the meaning
colleagues. As of this point in time one result experiential knowledge, and the other is to arise in the individual, the individual must
is an alternative practice of physics teaching explanation, explanatory knowledge. (Jam- construct it. Hence, the label, constructivism,
that can be called student understanding- mer 1999) This explanatory knowledge can- describes the consequence of the fundamen-
driven. This teaching practice can be not be judged any other way than for fit to tal nature of knowledge employed in radical
described as: experience. The degree of fit does not convey constructivism.
Physics teaching is the process of in any way the status of true description of an For a realist, everything breaks down at
engaging students in developing independent reality or of being closer to such this point, if it has not already. We are all iso-
new understanding of physical phenomena truth. Such truth for explanatory knowledge lated and incapable of communicating with
has neither existence nor status in this RC par- each other, if meaning cannot be transmitted.
The focus here, the central object of adigm. This is one of the fundamental points For the radical constructivist, nothing could
manipulation, is neither the canon, nor the of incommensurability between radical con- be further from the case, but in RC commu-
phenomena, nor the apparatus. It is the stu- structivist and realist paradigms. nication has an entirely different explanation.
dents’ explanatory schemes, their concep- Experiential knowledge is the experience For the realist, the transmission of realist-type
tions concerning the phenomena, their itself, hence experiential knowledge cannot knowledge cannot be dissociated from com-
understanding of the phenomena. The expe- be transmitted via language. Students must munication. For the radical constructivist,
riences, for which these explanatory schemes have their own experiences. Without these communication is the individual construc-
are developed, play the important role of experiences there is nothing to explain, no tion of meanings to be associated with sym-
checks on the explanations for fit, but it is the need for explanatory knowledge. bols and combinations of symbols from
explanatory conceptions that are the main The explanatory knowledge is not declar- someone else. At an early age, one constructs
focus of attention. These conceptions consti- ative statements but the meaning of such the notion of “other” based on patterns of reg-
tute a student’s understanding, hence the statements, the understanding from which ularity of experience. Later, one modifies the
practice is student understanding-driven. the statements are generated, the conceptions construct “other” to endow it with cognizing

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 55

education radical constructivism

capacities one is aware of in one’s own con- A high school teacher trying out the alter- one is complacent and satisfied (assessment of
sciousness. By experience, trial and error, and native teaching practice for the first time also the teachers) and one hardly needs any more
reasoning, one is continually building and used the FMCE diagnostic. The only modes of explanation. The second, not completely
modifying a kind of look-up table that con- communication between this teacher and the independent of the first, is that the system we
nects the symbols of language with meanings author were electronic mail and telephone. have works out really well for those consid-
that appear to fit experience (Glasersfeld in The teacher was conducting a project as part ered deserving. To perpetuate this caste sys-
press). Through copious interaction with of the requirements for a master’s degree in tem, a system is needed to convince people,
“others,” we develop look-up tables that work science education. Table 2 displays data col- even the undeserving, that this is just the way
sufficiently well that we can take our own lected in these two different classroom set- things are. In that way, the deserving do not
look-up table as shared with “others.” This tings. have to defend their special status, all of soci-
taken-as-shared communication process A comparison between Table 1 and Table 2 ety will do this for them. Hence, the preserva-
enables us to interact enough to decide cer- shows a marked difference in conceptual tion of inflated egos of the “deserving” can be
tain experiences can be taken-as-shared and change on the diagnostic scores. The initial seen to be a factor is preserving this status quo
that explanations can be taken-as-shared. average scores for each view in Table 2 are not in physics instruction.
The ability to make these mental construc- particularly different than those in Table 1.
tions is considered a capacity of all human This is because these students experienced Teaching within a radical
beings. Elitism plays no role in this paradigm, similar standard instruction in elementary constructivist paradigm
either in the teaching practice or in explaining school and in the 8th or 9th grades to that In this alternative program of physics teach-
the outcomes of the teaching. experienced by the science and engineering ing, the teacher plays a fundamentally differ-
Piaget describes a mechanism that drives majors in Table 1. The magnitudes of the ent role.
this process of meaning construction. What changes in table 2 are much larger. The effect “…a physics major has to be trained to use
drives meaning construction is the need or sizes are larger and the normalized changes today’s physics whereas a physics teacher has
desire for equilibration between one’s explan- are larger. The effect sizes easily meet Bloom’s to be trained to see a development of physical
atory mental constructs and one’s experi- challenge of a change of two-sigma over the theories in ... students’ minds.” (Niedderer
ences. (Piaget 1985) One moves to modify or results of normal instruction. (Bloom 1984) 1992), p. 151)
construct new explanation when one per- Clearly, non-science, non-engineering Having the students read a standard text or
ceives one’s existing mental constructs do not majors in this alternative teaching practice, the teacher present the canon, not only is a
fit experience, i.e., when one disequilibrates. guided by radical constructivism, consis- waste of time; it stifles the process of develop-
Because the resolution of the disequilibration tently and routinely change their understand- ing new understanding. In standard instruc-
is new mental constructs that do fit experi- ing of these phenomena by an amount several tion there is a text to be read and relied upon
ence, the resulting accommodation is always times larger than science and engineering and most class time is taken up by instructor
one that fits a greater range of experience, majors in standard physics instruction guided lectures, yet we see no useful change in under-
hence, a kind of pragmatic progress. In a nut- by an elitist realism. This is far beyond statis- standing in Table 1. Instead, most of the class
shell, for change in understanding to occur, tical significance. Typical statistical signifi- time needs to be occupied with students
the teacher first needs to engage the students’ cance in educational research is claimed for explaining to each other their conceptions,
attentions in comparing their existing con- the kind of changes (0.5 standard deviations) discussing how well the various conceptions
ceptions with some behavior of the phenom- seen in Table 1. Yet, we see that the level of fit the experiences with the phenomena, plan-
enon that likely does not fit those concep- understanding actually accomplished in ning with each other what adjustments might
tions. Table 1 post-scores is so small as to be imprac- be called for when the fit to experience is
tical as a justification for the instruction. found lacking, and discussing the results of
Some results of this alternative Two reasons can be imagined to explain tests of these accommodations against further
teaching practice that standard instruction is so entrenched experience with the phenomena.
Using the same diagnostic, the FMCE, and so widespread, but with such little actu- In order to see the development of physical
described previously in this work, conceptual ally learned. The first comes out of the theories in students’ minds, the teacher must
change on force and motion was studied in a broader explanatory scheme used here. The have access to copious amounts of student
course for non-science/non-engineering standard elitist-realist paradigm, as is a char- explanations and predictions concerning the
majors. The teaching practice used is the one acteristic of paradigms, has developed an phenomena being studied. The teacher needs
described above from within a radical con- explanation for everything it deems relevant. to be familiar with ways of thinking about the
structivist paradigm. Fewer of these students Such outcomes as seen in Table 1 are just the phenomena the students are likely to have. A
are likely to have had physics in high school. way things are. Very few really are “deserving,” teacher candidate can begin developing this
Most college science faculty imagine these so we spread a wide net to catch the few familiarity by studying the efforts of others
students to be in the category: less deserving. “good” people. Add to this an assessment who have examined students’ conceptions.
As such the learning results would be scheme which consists of (1) checking to see The bibliography (Duit 2004) is a major
expected to be inferior to that of the science if the catechism can be recited (assessment of source in such study. Ultimately, it is neces-
and engineering majors. the students) and (2) looking to see if every- sary to listen to and watch many students as

56 Constructivist Foundations
education radical constructivism

they demonstrate their understanding of the of other students. In this sharing discussion, ence. The students are encouraged to con-
phenomena and as they evolve their under- they are asked to interact and try to under- struct possible modifications to those initial
standing. This has to happen in the class- stand any new ideas or new nuances of ideas conceptions or whole alternatives. To achieve
room. they encounter and make notes about these. an accommodation, it is necessary to test
In a RC paradigm, teaching cannot be The point here is not whether the prediction these modifications or alternatives. Such tests
about the teacher confronting the misconcep- is accurate, but that the students make explicit are carried out by first working out predicted
tions of students and correcting them. This is to themselves and each other the nature of outcomes based on the proposed changes and
the typical, very logical response of those in their conceptions. then checking to see what happens. Iterations
the elitist-realist paradigm who deign to look 2. Comparison: Until this point they are are continued until most students report sat-
at the student conceptions research in the bib- generally restrained from actually trying to isfactory equilibration.
liography. In RC a student’s conception is not see what will happen. The central object of 4. Application: The testing of possible
a misconception. It fits the student’s experi- manipulation here is neither the apparatus accommodations constitutes a nesting of
ence sufficiently that the student perceives nor the phenomenon itself. Instead, it is the additional phases (1) & (2) repeated within
equilibrium between the conception and students’ understanding, their explanatory the third phase. Alternatively it can be seen as
experience. It is the student’s perception of conceptions, of the phenomenon. To try a kind of 4th phase, one of application in which
equilibrium or disequilibrium that plays the things first generally drives these conceptions not only the testing of potential modifications
central role. The teacher cannot give the stu- deeper making them more difficult to elicit to explanation is conducted, but the phenom-
dents new conceptions because the teacher and explicitly examine. This latter is the func- enon is further explored, using apparently
cannot transmit meaning. Only the student tion and purpose of putting the elicitation successful explanatory schemes. In effect then
can change his or her own conception. This phase first. Once the elicitation is completed the phenomenon is seen through the new per-
only happens when the student perceives and all understand the explanations deemed spective made possible by the new explana-
some disequilibration, lack of fit, between reasonable, it is time to check to see if experi- tion. In the process how well and broadly this
personal conceptions and personal experi- ence fits any of these explanations. The stu- scheme applies to the phenomenon is deter-
ence. All a teacher can do is to set up condi- dents are asked to carefully observe and faith- mined. Often, new aspects of the phenome-
tions in which students are more likely to fully record what is observed with respect to non are discovered and deeper understanding
make changes. the particular prediction at hand. They need of the explanatory scheme is realized.
In order to influence whether or not the to make note of what fits the predictions and
students make any changes to their concep- what does not fit the predictions. In the case
tions, the teacher needs to engage the students of the latter they are asked to make specific
in a series of processes: notes about the nature of mismatch between Superficial success:
1. Elicitation: First, the students need to be the experience and the predictions.
engaged in examining their own beliefs about It should be noted that since the teacher is Training and indoctrination of scientists in
the phenomenon at hand. Each student needs trying to establish conditions in which con- the elitist-realist paradigm is accomplished
to make these explicit to her or himself by ceptual change would occur, the teacher It takes 3–5 or more cycles of standard
writing and then talking about them. This should select specific examples in which what instruction for understanding to be
process is often called the elicitation of initial the students will predict does not match the accomplished
conceptions. Normally it is not necessary in experience they will have. This requires the
Spectacular failure:
everyday life to make such things explicit to teacher to have constructed a sufficiently reli-
oneself, nor is it called for in normal school- able mental model of the students’ mental For nearly all of society there is
ing; hence it is not a practice most are com- models in order to make such selections. It
no change in understanding concerning the
fortable with or skilled at. In fact, in typical also requires that the teacher have a broad
phenomena studied
schooling students learn at a very early age knowledge of the details of experiences possi-
In any science
that it is not wise to express one’s own ideas, ble with the phenomena to be studied. Note
In any country
but to focus on guessing what the teacher that the canon of physics has not been men-
For the last century or more
wants someone to say. tioned here. It is very difficult for teachers to
To accomplish elicitation in the face of have these skills unless teachers have explicitly Students, including those who become
these challenges, students can be engaged in participated in the same sorts of processes to scientists, learn
making a prediction. They are greeted with an accomplish change in understanding them- Only a few special people can “understand”
actual example of the phenomenon and asked selves. science.
what they think would happen if a certain 3. Resolution: When the anticipated dise- We must rely on “scientists” for “scientific
change were made. In addition to the predic- quilibrated state has been achieved by the stu- truth.”
tion, an explanation that makes sense to them dents, given an intellectually safe environ-
is asked for. Students are asked, first, to write ment, many begin to critically analyze their Table 3: Outcomes of elitist–realist
this down without discussion. Then, they are initial explanatory knowledge and the nature science instruction. Not unique to science
asked to share their ideas with a small group of the misfit between it and their new experi- instruction

2005, vol. 1, no. 1 57

education radical constructivism

Student understanding-driven, not the caste of those who can understand. It is ing practice runs on an elicit, compare, resolve,
canon or content-driven those in the caste who can “get” the canon apply cycle. Students considered less deserv-
The established canon does not drive the who are considered the deserving. Further- ing, less capable in the other paradigm, but
ordering or development of the predictions more, all learn that this is just the way things taught in this alternative practice, are shown
that are used. It could be allowed to do so, but are—the ideology-less ideology of objectivity repeatedly to be capable of making far greater
the learning results suffer when this is done. in realism. This program of teaching and the change in understanding than science and
Before the semesters of the college level con- elitist-realist paradigm on which it is based engineering majors taught in the elitist-realist
ceptual physics course shown in Table 2. The can be seen to explain the spectacular, wide- paradigm of standard instruction. This result
series of predictions the students were asked spread, and long-term failure of standard demolishes the “objectivity” of the deserving/
to engage in was still partially canon driven. physics instruction and its destructive influ- less deserving explanation for the fact that so
Equal time in the study of motion, kinemat- ence in society. few students “get it” in standard science
ics, was given to position, to velocity and to If there were no examples of effective alter- instruction. As a result the “objectivity” of the
acceleration. The standard paradigm holds natives, this state of affairs could be argued as whole elitist-realist paradigm fails.
that one cannot really know velocity until one truth,. An alternative approach to teaching In RC one cannot claim radical construc-
really knows position and so forth for acceler- based on a radical constructivist paradigm is tivism to be “The True paradigm.” One can
ation. It was noticed from the diagnostic data shown to be one such alternative. This teach- only show that RC is the basis for a paradigm
that whether or not a student demonstrated
understanding of velocity was not a predictor
of change in understanding with respect to
force. Regardless whether one agrees or disagrees with the above line of reasoning, one still faces a
Under this canon-dictated, equal-time- moral, ethical dilemma in terms of social justice in education.The outcomes of standard instruc-
for-all-three-topics design, the typical effect tion are unsatisfactory and destructive. At least one alternative with good outcomes has been
sizes were slightly under 2 standard devia- demonstrated.
tions and the normalized gain was slightly less In the name of social justice in education, are we not obligated to respond in a careful, but serious,
than 0.5. When all but two of the ten activities reasoned way, that rises above sectarian bickering?
on position and velocity were dropped and Are we not obligated to end, with all possible haste, the negative outcomes of standard
the time gained was used to examine acceler- instruction? Are we not obligated to end, with all possible haste, the training of teachers to inflict
ation more deeply, results changed. The result such intellectual and social damage by thoroughly revising their training to equip teacher can-
of abandoning the canon and allowing one’s didates not to inflict such damage? Unless we accomplish paradigm change from the elitist-
understanding of the students’ understand- realist paradigm, that paradigm will remain hegemonic and the destruction will continue. Got
ings drive the process can be seen in Table 2. change for a paradigm?
There was an additional 0.5 standard devia- Paradigm change occurs when people become dissatisfied with things as they are. One can
tion effect size and about 0.15 normalized reasonably argue that our young man started outside the prevailing paradigm.What drove him
gain. This departure from the canon results in to develop an alternative practice of teaching and to consciously define for himself his paradigm
an additional change essentially equal to that was his disequilibration over the discrepancy between his expectations about the outcomes of
of the standard instruction in total. teaching and his observations of the outcomes when he began teaching. Can teacher candi-
dates be engaged in the same discrepancy? This may be what Niedderer (1992) was referring
to when he wrote: “…a physics teacher has to be trained to see a development of physical
Conclusions theories in ... students’ minds.”
It is possible to imagine a RC-based course of study for teacher candidates in any subject.
Standard physics instruction is effectively This course of study would have as its central focus; the evidence of a person’s understanding
described as the presentation of the established in whatever subject is to be taught. Surrounding this central focus should be the examination
canon by approved methods for the benefit of of how, why and under what circumstances understanding appears to change and methods of
the deserving. It runs on an inform, verify, facilitating this change process in the students.The presentation of the established canon of the
practice cycle. Teaching practices based in this subject and approved methods would cease to determine anything in the course of study for
description result in almost no practical teacher candidates, though the established canon might remain a presence at the periphery in
change in understanding of the phenomena the course of study for teachers.
studied on the part of the students. On the Students who learn in this radical constructivist paradigm not only develop significant,
other hand, there is change in understanding deeper understanding of the phenomena studied, but also develop a different self-image. This
as a result of this instruction. Unfortunately, self-image is positive and empowering. Students come to see the value in understanding the
the change is that students learn a caste system point of view of others and develop skills for working with others to create better common
based on who can “understand” the phenom- understanding of issues they face. Every student in every classroom can do this. Wouldn’t the
ena in standard instruction and who cannot. world they create be far better than the one we have now? When do we start changing how
Since most of them leave the instruction not we teach? If not us, who? If not now, when?
understanding, most decide they are not in

58 Constructivist Foundations
education radical constructivism

that yields far more favorable results in can see direct application to physics teaching,
instruction. On the other hand, the failures of the conclusion and applications apply much
instruction in the elitist-realist paradigm and more generally. This is justification for trying Dewey Dykstra grew up in Maryland, USA.
its failure to fit experience, in terms of who to understand radical constructivism instead In junior high and high school he entered
can and who cannot “get” instruction in phys- of trying to prove it wrong. and won prizes at Science Fairs. He gradu-
ics, do enable us to draw the conclusion that ated with a B. S. in Physics from Case Insti-
the elitist-realist paradigm fails on the tute of Technology in 1969 and began
grounds of outcomes and logical integrity. It Epilogue teaching high school in the inner city of
should be either abandoned or substantially Cleveland, OH that same year. After three
modified, if such is possible. Until and unless Presently our young physics teacher, now years he moved back to Maryland and
a satisfactory modification is demonstrated, it much older, is accomplishing his goal of engag- taught 9th grade physical science and 12th
should not be allowed to drive what it calls ing students in developing new understanding grade physics for a year. He entered gradu-
education. What it calls “education” is not of physical phenomena. His still developing ate school at The University of Texas at Aus-
education. At best, it is training and indoctri- understanding of the work of Piaget and of tin and earned a Ph. D. in condensed matter
nation in a rationally and ethically unsup- Radical Constructivism play significant roles Physics in 1978. He has been on the Physics
portable paradigm. At worst, it is ideological in the on-going development of this successful faculty at Oklahoma State University and
indoctrination and is a destructive institution teaching practice. The results for college stu- Boise State University. He is privileged to
in our society. It has no place in the education dents in Table 2 reveal that his students make have had as mentors: Robert Fuller, James
of our society. changes in their understanding of the phe- Minstrell and Ernst von Glasersfeld, among
The line of reasoning presented is about nomena in quantity far superior to that of stu- others. – “In addition to teaching and
the relative usefulness of realism vs. radical dents experiencing standard instruction. He research in physics, I have conducted
constructivism. Radical constructivism leads continually works at engaging the unengaged projects investigating the nature of learning
to outcomes much more desirable than elitist in his classrooms in order that even more in physics problem solving and developing
realism in the context examined. While one achieve the results of the rest of the class. physics instructional materials with guid-
ance from evidence collected concerning
students' conceptions of physical phenom-
ena. Over the years I have held several posi-
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60 Constructivist Foundations