Re: [xmca] Re: the Strange Situation

From: Martin Packer <packer who-is-at>
Date: Thu Oct 30 2008 - 08:22:11 PDT


The labels vary. Yes, Gergen calls his approach constructionism. Anyone who
wants to explore the debate over Gergen's approach in particular could do
worse than look at the two issues of Theory & Psychology on this topic in
2001 and 2003. There, Nigel Edley draws a distinction similar to the one
I've made, saying that:

³social constructionism is not best understood as a unitary paradigm and
that one very important difference is betweenŠ [what Edwards (1997) calls]
its ontological and epistemic forms. I argue that an appreciation of this
distinction not only exhausts many of the disputes that currently divide the
constructionist community, but also takes away from the apparent radicalism
of much of this work² (Edley, 2001, p. 433)

But Edley, having made this important distinction, makes a mistake, in my
view, by arguing *against* the ontological kind of constructionism. In his
view Gergen's social constructionism is not as controversial as it seems,
because it avoids ontological claims. I agree with him the Gergen's
constructionism is not controversial, because it merely claims that
knowledge is constructed. This is clearly the case. But what Gergen
apparently fails to appreciate is that to construct a representation of
reality is not to construct reality. Human reality, too, is constructed, but
in practice, not by making representations (either mental, as for Kant,
Husserl, Piaget, and others, or linguistic, as for Gergen and others).

And in the second issue of T&P Ian Burkitt examines the various ontologial
positions within constructionism. He points out the problems and
contradictions in Gergen's efforts to be "ontologically mute" and argues for
"a more fundamental ontology," drawing in part from Merleau-Ponty's emphasis
on human embodiment in the world:

³Gergen is right to say that as soon as we attempt to articulate what there
is we enter the world of discourse, history and culture, but it is a shame
that he feels this renders constructionism ontologically muteŠ. The
relationship between language and the sensible, then, is a constant
dialectic with no ending because language can never capture the mute world
of the sensibleŠ. Here we find the crux of the structuration between
perception and articulation, the sensible structure and the structure of
language. In eradicating the sensible and perceptual element of this
dialectic, constructionists present to us only the constant interchange of
language without the silent source of the dialogue; the attempt to
articulate the perceptual faith, the desire to say what there is² (Burkitt,
2003, p. 331)

This notion of a "dialectic... between language and the sensible" in which
human knowledge is not distinct from reality but part of it takes us back to
Vygotsky's exploration of thinking, perceiving, and speaking.


Burkitt, I. (2003). Psychology in the field of being: Merleau-Ponty,
ontology and social constructionism. Theory & Psychology, 13(3), 319-338.

Edley, N. (2001). Unravelling social constructionism. Theory & Psychology,
11(3), 433-441.

On 10/30/08 9:53 AM, "" <> wrote:

> Martin:
> I believe you are referring to constructionism. Constructivism is Latour's
> theory of scientific communities.
> eric
> Martin Packer
> <> To: "eXtended Mind,
> Culture, Activity" <>
> Sent by: cc:
> xmca-bounces@web Subject: Re: [xmca] Re: the
> Strange Situation
> 10/29/2008 03:33
> PM
> Please respond
> to "eXtended
> Mind, Culture,
> Activity"
> Dewey,
> I was sketching with broad strokes, and obviously a lot of detail could be
> added, and nuance.
> But I stand by my main point, that there have been two kinds of
> constructivism. The first considers the construction of knowledge. It is an
> epistemological construction: it maintains that we construct
> "representations" of reality, mental or linguistic. When we examine the
> ontological assumptions of this kind of constructivism they are generally
> dualist. The key sign is the claim that it is impossible to know the world
> outside these representations, and so one must be "ontologically mute" (as
> Gergen put it). Kant said this, as did Husserl, and von Glasersfeld.
> The other kind of constructivism starts from a non-dualistic ontology, and
> considers the construction of objects and subjects. It tends to view social
> relations or practices as prior to individuals. It tends to emphasize non-
> or pre-representational forms of knowledge. And it tends to point out that
> language is a form of action before it is a form of representation.
> Martin
> On 10/29/08 4:32 PM, "Dewey Dykstra" <> wrote:
>> On Oct 26, 2008, at 11:12 AM, Martin Packer wrote:
>>> Andy, David,
>>> I agree that Kant has to receive some credit. ...
>>> What this kind of constructivism is unable to do is answer the
>>> question that
>>> Kant tried, but failed, to answer: how can we have adequate
>>> knowledge and
>>> ethics? These constructivists (Piaget, Berger & Luckmann, Gergen)
>>> remain
>>> trapped in skepticism (about real objects and other minds) and
>>> relativism
>>> (about both truth and values). They focus on the individual outside of
>>> social relations, and they privilege theoretical reflection over
>>> practical
>>> activity. They privilege representation over practical know-how.
>>> ...
>> It appears from the paragraph above, the problem is that one is not
>> satisfied until one has some absolute basis for absolute ethical
>> stances, hence the word "trappped" when referring to skepticism and
>> relativism. This position privileges realism over skepticism without
>> ever answering the fundamental question of skepticism.
>> The distinction here is apparently between a realist stance with
>> respect to ethics and a non-realist stance. Someone who can never
>> step outside of the realist stance will never understand a position
>> taken in a non-realist paradigm and vice versa. Obviously, the
>> likes of Piaget, Gergen, etc. and other constructivists such as von
>> Glasersfeld, Maturana, Varela, von Foerster did/do not see themselves
>> as trapped, but in a sense as freed. Yet, if you read what they have
>> to say about things like ethics you will find reasoned, specific
>> positions taken with respect to ethics. With that freedom comes
>> responsibility--an ethical stance, it seems to me. Take for example:
>> Maturana, H. (1988) 'Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest
>> for a compelling argument', The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9(11):
>> 25-82.
>> It is repetition of false impressions to repeat the claim that Piaget
>> did not attend to social relations merely because his work in this
>> area was not translated into English until well after his death.
>> Better to actually carefully study what has been translated at this
>> point. I am also mystified why the claim is made that Gergen's focus
>> is on the individual outside of social relations. One might disagree
>> with another's operating explanatory model for a particular area, but
>> is this grounds for making the claim that the other's work had no
>> focus in the area?
>> Finally, it strikes me that the claim that these authors privilege
>> theoretical reflection and representation over practical activity and
>> know-how is unfounded if one makes a careful study of the work of
>> these authors. Practical is inextricably merged with reflection in
>> the construction of the world.
>> The choice, as Buddhists might put it, is not between essentialism
>> and nihilism. Instead there is another way. Essentialism and
>> nihilism are opposite poles of a single continuum, realism to
>> solipsism. These authors are talking about an entirely different
>> dimension, which includes neither essentialism nor nihilism, hence
>> not realism. The two continua, thought of as straight lines in
>> space, are neither parallel nor do they intersect. The Buddhist
>> answer is called the Middle Way, but it seems that the Middle Way is
>> not a point on the continuum between essentialism and nihilism. The
>> Middle Way is incommensurate with the continuum of essentialism to
>> nihilism, realism to solipsism. The version of non-realism espoused
>> in various ways by these authors is a non-realist stance with many
>> similarities to the Buddhist Middle Way. (For more about The Middle
>> Way, check out Jay Garfield's commentary in The Fundamental Wisdom of
>> the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika (1995, can be found
>> on Amazon)).
>> Dewey
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