Re: [xmca] Re: the Strange Situation

From: Dewey Dykstra <ddykstra who-is-at>
Date: Thu Oct 30 2008 - 14:43:21 PDT

Hi Martin:
Thanks for responding. In response to your note (below) I agree with
you about two types of constructivism. But, I differ in how to
describe the two camps, or at least one of the camps. I believe this
difference goes beyond nuance to essence.

I can speak most specifically about von Glasersfeld, Piaget, and to
some extent Maturana and Varela, so I will do so with that caveat. I
am not as familiar with Gergen's work. This group does not see their
view as constructing representations of reality, with or without
quotes, mental or linguistic. There are numerous places in their
published writing where von Glasersfeld and Piaget say this quite
specifically. I believe this applies to Maturana and Varela, too,
von Foerster, as well. It appears from what you write: "one must be
"ontologically mute" (as Gergen put it)," it may be that Gergen holds
the same view. Glasersfeld has at times used the word: agnostic,
with respect to anything that can be said or thought about some mind-
independent reality. This position is an epistemological one, hence
the possibility of the label, epistemological constructivism.

It is the case that a key sign of the skeptic is the impossibility of
knowing the world outside of our constructions. All of this group of
authors seems to share this. Since we have no way of judging our
constructions other than whether or not they fit the evidence and
enable predictions that work out, then we have no way of judging the
extent to which our constructions describe this possible reality (a
constructed conception itself). While it seems central to the
program in realist views to construct an accurate picture of this
reality "out there," such a goal can have no useful place in this
brand of constructivism. Instead, the goal of our constructions is
to enable explanation of experiences and generate predictions that we
can hope will come true. It is a kind of making sense of our
predicament to enable functioning within it. This requires a kind of
humility with respect to our mental constructions, that seems not to
be required of realists.

Another point here is that it may be that the only way this view can
be seen as a dualist view (here I take dualist to refer to mental
constructions vs. "the real thing") is from a realist point of view,
e.g., outside this brand of constructivistm. From within this brand
of constructivism, it is non-dualist because while there are mental
constructions, there is nothing that they can be compared with to
check for quality of representation, in part because such a direct
comparison cannot be made (skepticism). Hence, representation is
"out the window," not of any practical value or use. Maybe a way to
describe this form of constructivism is non-realist, keeping careful
not to assume that here non-realist means solipsist. Glasersfeld has
called this brand of constructivism, radical constructivism. He uses
the adjective, radical, in the sense of 'going to the root of,'
because this view takes as its foundation a position with respect to
the nature of our mental constructions and works strictly from there.

As for the other brand of constructivism, I will go out on a limb.
 From what little study of Vygotsky's writing I have done, off and on
readership of this list over the years (nearly 20 years I have to
admit), and reading some works of members of this list, it seems to
me that one thing that distinguishes Vygotsky and Piaget was what
they were trying to understand. Vygotsky focused on cognitive
development as the development of cultural tools. Piaget focused on
cognitive development as the construction of knowledge (in the sense
of understanding) from the earliest times in a person's life, from
even before the basic cultural tools such as language have been
developed.* Because most of our cultures are based in realism,
languages and cultural practices/tools are entirely consistent with
that paradigm. Vygotsky, trying to understand the development of
cultural tools by children, would naturally, and most obviously,
generate a theory that is also entirely consistent with the same
paradigm. OTOH, Piaget, attempting to look "behind the curtain" as
it were, did not end up with a realist theory, but instead a non-
realist theory.

This realist theory, the other kind of constructivism, then also sees
itself as non-dualist. From this view, ontology can be a central
issue. The realist program of formulating as accurate a picture of a
mind-independent reality as possible is at the center. Mental
constructions then are constructions of that mind-independent
reality. The one real thing in this setting is this mind-independent
reality and to the extent that (and in the sense that) mental
constructions represent that mind-independent reality, they are not
distinguished from that reality. Hence, there is only one thing, not
two--non-dualist. Consistent with this then a study of social
interactions could be conducted from the view that "social relations
or practices" are "prior to individuals." In other words social
relations or practices are taken as part of a mind-independent
reality for the child who must construct an understanding of
(appropriate?) these social relations or practices. On this basis
one could call this constructivism, realist constructivism or maybe
ontological constructivism.

Finally relating to an earlier note in this thread, it may be a
coincidence that I just read an interview with Jim Wertsch from the
Fall of 1996 in an issue of The Constructivist (vol. 11, no. 2), the
organ of the Association for Constructivist Teaching. He had been a
plenary speaker at their annual meeting. He had the following thing
to say:

"People often say that the difference between Piaget and Vygotsky is
that Vygotsky was interested in the social and Piaget was interested
in the individual. I think this view gives short shrift to both of
them--to put them in those corners. Piaget clearly was interested in
the social. For him, thought, operations, and schemas and logical
structures apply to both individual and social forms of action. He
looked at social interaction at a lot of points in his work.
Conversely, Vygotsky was clearly interested in the individual, the
active constructive individual. Otherwise, there would be no way to
participate in the kind of social processes that he saw." (page 8)

Just some thoughts...

PS: Michael, and others who may remember, I am not sure how "back" I
am, but I am gratified to be remembered. Thanks.

* Some of his students, Emilia Ferreiro for example, studied aspects
of the development of the cultural tool, language. Her book with Ana
Tebersky titled: Literacy Before Schooling, is very good.

On Oct 29, 2008, at 3:33 PM, Martin Packer wrote:

> 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
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> xmca mailing list
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list

Dewey I. Dykstra, Jr., Ph. D. Phone: (208)426-3105
Professor of Physics Dept: (208)426-3775
Department of Physics/MCF421/418 Fax: (208)426-4330
Boise State University
1910 University Drive Boise Highlanders
Boise, ID 83725-1570 novice piper: GHB, Uilleann

"The problem in science is you never get to see the yak!"
--D. Dykstra, Science for Monks Project, 2006.

"...a physics major has to be trained to use today's physics whereas
a physics teacher has to be trained to see a development of physical
theories in his students' minds." -- H. Niedderer in
"International Conference on Physics Teachers' Education Proceedings"
Dortmund: University of Dortmund, p. 151, 1992.

"It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of
instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of
inquiry; for
this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in
need of
freedom; without this the plant goes to wreck and ruin without fail."
Einstein in "Autobiographical Notes," 1949.

"Now there are two theorems that form together the cardinal hinge on
which the whole structure of physical science turns. These theorems
"Where Is Science Going?," 1932. (EMPHASIS in the original)

"As a result of modern research in physics, the ambition and hope,
still cherished by most authorities of the last century, that physical
science could offer a photographic picture and true image of reality
had to be abandoned." --M. Jammer in "Concepts of Force," 1957.

"If what we regard as real depends on our theory, how can we make
reality the basis of our philosophy? ...But we cannot distinguish
what is real about the universe without a makes no sense
to ask if it corresponds to reality, because we do not know what
reality is independent of a theory."--S. Hawking in "Black Holes
and Baby Universes" 1993.

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