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Introduction to Radical Constructivism I January 7, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Books, Constructivism, history, Other, postmodern, postmodernism, science.

A couple of days ago I happened upon an interesting blog written by an even more interesting person called, in the blogosphere at least, SilverTiger.  I have been showering his blog with odd comments and questions and in return he has commented on my own.  Recently, if there can be anything more recent than the aforementioned “couple of days,” I commented on an interesting post he wrote about sudoku, and he, in turn, challenged me to a sort of debate on our respective blogs, about the merits and shortcomings of such a philosophical position–Radical Constructivism (RC). 

I had meant to write about this particular philosophical position before, but, well, you all know how that goes.  SilverTiger’s challenge seems like a good time to start. 

 I thought I’d start with the comment that precipitated it, which was

Interesting. I have no doubt that there is a “real” reality out there. The idea that we somehow contruct reality seems illogical to me. For example, if I construct reality, how did I construct “myself”? Or do I merely imagine that there was a time before I existed?

No, for me, the findings of science hold together far too solidly for the world to be some kind of Buddhistic delusion. The only reasonable defence seems fully blown solipsism.

If you don’t find it too much of a bore, how about rehearsing the constructivist prospectus in a post? I might then be moved to post a contrary view. Could be fun.

Well, we shall see about the “fun” part.  I’m pretty sure that SilverTiger and I will have fun.  But whether this will be interesting for others, I do not know.

I spent some time today thinking about how to coalesce RC into something that would be understandable to most people, and I found this a terribly difficult task.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, it developed independently in several different disciplines and, therefore, has several sets of jargon that make it (second) difficult even for me to explain to myself.  There are at least three excellent books on it, that I know of (and I’d love to hear of others, of course).

  • How Real is Real, Paul Watzlavick, ed.  
  • Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know?, Paul Watzlavick, ed.  
  • Munchhausen’s Pigtail or Psychotherapy & Reality, Paul Watzlawick

For those who prefer the internets, the best possible paper on the subject may be found at:

Riegler, A. (2001) Towards a Radical Constructivist Understanding of Science. Foundations of Science, special issue on “The Impact of Radical Constructivism on Science” 6(1):1-30.

(For that last one, click on the title to find it at it’s current home. )

This little debate between SilverTiger and I (and whoever else would like to join in, of course, through the comments space) might take a while, because I am simply unable at the moment, to lay out a series of postulates that would do this perspective justice.  Instead, first up is a response to SilverTiger’s comments in the form of a personal narrative.

I studied History in graduate school, and one of my first graduate courses was in the field of historiography, which is the study of the writing of history.  This class was taught by an excellent teacher at California State University, Sacramento, and his name escapes me at the moment, for I wasn’t ever officially in the graduate program there, so I didn’t have to remember his name. 

At some point in the semester we read an address by an eminent American “progressive historian” who asked the people in the audience to think carefully about whether they saw history as a progression towards the perfection of humanity, or as a decline, or as a sort of spirally curve that didn’t go anywhere in particular. 

For the life of me I couldn’t understand what this guy was talking about.  And I asked the rest of the class “why are there no other options?”  The professor waited a second for somebody else to field the question and then, as no other responses were forthcoming, said “like what?”

I couldn’t think of anything, and was a little embarrased.  And yet, I knew there must be something else.  It soon (not soon enough to use in the class, but relatively soon as I beat myself up over not being able to come up with an answer, maybe a couple of years later) dawned on me that the appropriate answer was something like this: “Like thinking that that is a weird question and rejecting it out-of-hand.”  Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case in the eye of the pontificator.  This guy’s idea of perfection and mine were almost certainly different, since he was born at least one hundred years before me. 

So, the problem here is first to recognize that dividing the world into realists and solipsists is spurious.  I do not believe that I am creating the entire world in my head, which would be the criticism most people levy against RC, without understanding it.  It is not solipsism.  RC simply rejects the idea that it is important to think about whether or not there is a real world. 

So, what isRC?  How about an analogy, to start things off?  Imagine that you are a pilot of a plane with excellent instruments.  You can see through a little video screen the view from any direction, and your instruments tell you all about the plane’s relationship to the rest of the world.  Maturana (Maturana, H. R. (1978) Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality. In: Miller, G. A. & Lenneberg, E. (eds.) Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneberg, New York: Academic Press, pp. 27- 63.) asserts that this is pretty much the boat we are all in. 

The only way we know about something like the rest of the world is through our senses.  The only way we know that the information we get from our senses is correct (conforming in some fashion to something we think of as reality) is that our other senses corraborate that information.  Our eyes see a table with food on it.  Our nose smells the food.  If we try to walk though the table, our sense of touch will let us know that we may not do so. 

Postulating an objective “real world” is not a problem, in this simple example.  One is unlikely to find anything to counter that perspective.  But there are many things in the objective “real world” that will throw you for a loop.  Consider, for example, that the progressive historian I mentioned earlier may (or may not) have been a racist who believed that people with dark skin were inferior to those with lighter color skin.  What, then, of his vision of perfection, or of progress? 

Any discussion involving the perceptions of more than one individual quickly begins to tax the idea of there being any objective reality.   The wonderful thing about science is that, in the experience of most people, it does not run into such problems.  But consider, for a moment, that most people are aware that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  And yet one might ask whether this heliocentric view plays any part at all in the calculations necessary in the ballistics of launching and landing the Space Shuttle.  For these calculations it is simplest, and least dangerous, to retreat to the Ptolemaic worldview.  Astrogators, in other words, set aside their knowledge of “the real world” in order to get their jobs done. 

So, this rehearsal of the constructivist position begins with postulate number one, viz: The assertion that there is an objective reality out there somewhere, while very helpful at the level at which animals interact with the world, can lead to nonsense at more complicated levels of thought, and this assertion really out ought to be the first thing tossed out the window when one is doing complicated sorts of reasoning.

So, SilverTiger, or others who wish to get involved here, any reaction to postulate 1.



1. maryjunebrown - January 7, 2007

Wow. I had to read this a couple of times to follow it. I haven’t really ever studied this topic, but I have often wondered about the idea of subjective reality…I am interested in reading more as you and SilverTiger explore this. Thanks for doing it in an open forum where we can follow along.

2. caveblogem - January 8, 2007


Sorry about the rambling and confusing nature of the post. There seemed to be a lot of ground to cover on introducing a confusing topic. Hopefully SilverTiger will help clean things up.

I’m glad you found it interesting.

3. baralbion - January 9, 2007

This area is new to me, but I think I have a notion of what it might be about. Firstly, can we dismiss what it is not about? It is not, presumably, a re-hash of Bishop Berkeley. Nor is it, I take it, a variation of the proposition that my brain is in a vat and hooked up to an advanced computer to simulate the experience of my life. Nor the similar idea that my whole life might be a dream.

Is it then similar to something towards which I have been feeling my way for some time? The problem with all philosophy is that the examiner is also the examined. We bring our own values and perspective to whatever philosophical problem we might be examining. Thus the reality we perceive might well be, as you suggest, our own construct. It seems to me that there might be multiple viewpoints, perhaps elsewhere in space and time or in parallel universes, either diametrically opposed to our own, or which simply do not recognise our way of looking at things at all. I suggest that all the values which we hold dear – beauty, justice, truth, altruism and so on – are simply products, and in some cases by-products, of our evolution. From any of my putative alternative viewpoints they might be meaningless.

4. SilverTiger - January 9, 2007

Just to let you know I am studying your post and composing a reply. It may take me a little while, as I have other things going on too at the moment, but I will be as quick as I can.

Email SilverTiger

5. caveblogem - January 9, 2007

Perfectly understandable, SilverTiger. And let me apologize in advance if I mischaracterized your position in any way in my post. I was holed up at home with the laptop all weekend and had a good deal of time in which to think about how to begin the discussion. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking all that clearly.

6. SilverTiger - January 9, 2007
7. caveblogem - January 9, 2007


I think you see what I am saying it isn’t. I’m not sure about the thing about the problem being that the examiner is being examined, but the rest of the comment seems to be along the lines of what I was trying to say.

When you say that I suggest that “the reality we perceive . . . might . . . be . . . our own construct” that might be going a bit far. But it might also be a matter of degree. How much of our worldview is determined by the questions we ask? In the purely physical realm, the walking around and bumping into things realm, I think a lot of it is determined by functional abilities and limitations. In the realm of conversation and more complicated endeavors, I think that a surprising percentage of our view is determined by what we bring to the table.

Sorry again about the commenting difficulties with WordPress. Hope it doesn’t happen again.

8. Debate on Constructivism 1 « SilverTiger - January 10, 2007

[…] on Constructivism 1 This is my reply to caveblogem’s first post on Radical Constructivism (RC). Interested readers should refer to that post if they want to keep up with the discussion and, as I […]

9. SilverTiger - January 10, 2007

I am pleased to announce that I have composed an answer to caveblogem‘s post on Constructivism. You will find it here.

I wish to say that it is no part of my agenda to refute caveblogem‘s views. Insofar as they are his and he finds them good, I wish him well of them. It is more a case of each setting out his own beliefs in answer to the other and finding it interesting and perhaps challenging to do so. I can say that in writing my piece I became aware of ideas that I had not consciously entertained before. In that way and in confronting another world view, I am the richer for the experience.

Email SilverTiger

10. Debate on Constructivism 0 « SilverTiger - October 1, 2007

[…] blog Pretty Good on Paper has agreed to a discussion of Constructivism. He has published his first post on the topic and I will shortly reply. I will identify my posts on the topic by giving them the titles Debate on […]

11. Anonymous - March 25, 2011


12. Anonymous - May 3, 2011

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