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Introduction to Radical Constructivism V January 18, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Constructivism, fiction, literature, narrative, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism.

I’m going to take a slight digression before unleashing Postulate III to respond at length to a comment that anxiousmofo left on this thread.  I do this partially because he has tried so diligently to answer a question that has puzzled me for years.  He made me see some aspects to my position that I never quite understood (but also, of course, because he introduces the expression “intuition pump,” which I think is pretty funny and had not heard before).  The question at hand is something like “why should one even concern one’s self with the question of whether or not there is some sort of real world out there?”  This is the “question 2” which he refers to in his comment below (initially posted as comment #5 here).  –WARNING: CONTAINS SPINOZA

To answer your question 2, here’s a thought experiment (or, more honestly, an intuition pump). Suppose that you have been happily married to someone you love for twenty years, a kind, intelligent, attractive person named Pat. One day, Pat’s doctor informs you that Pat is a philosophical zombie. Pat has no mental states at all, and only appears to love you in return. The hypothesis that Pat loves you and enjoys being with you and is committed to you is consistent with all the data and makes useful predictions about how Pat will act towards you; it just happens to be false. Wouldn’t knowing that make a difference to you? Similarly, if what I see as objects and people in the real world don’t actually exist, my life would be meaningless.

Of course, the notion that Pat (or anyone else) is a philosophical zombie is an extremely far-fetched and unparsimonious* notion, and so (I would argue) is the notion that the world we experience is unrelated to the real world, or the notion that there is no real world.

*Unparsimonious because it would require that there be at least two kinds of people in the world, those with mental states and those without.

An intriguing thought experiment/analogy.  It reminds me of a passage in Neal Stephenson’s voluminous Baroque Cycle trilogy of novels, which I am going to reproduce here, it being relevant and hoping that since I worship his writing he will forgive me.  A black man (Dappa) and a Puritan (Daniel) are meeting the Puritan’s nephew (Peer, who writes for a sort of newspaper) in a club/pub in London, circa 1715.  The scene is one of the fifteen funniest in the 3000+ page work, but I will omit some of the funniest parts to focus on what is relevant to my response to your thought experiment.

“. . . Dappa was, at a very young age, taken aboard a ship by pirates as a sort of pet.  And these pirates, being a polyglot group, amused themselves by training Dappa to spead twenty-five different languages fluently.”

“Twenty-five different languages! Peer exclaimed.

“Yes.  Including English better than you, as you just saw.”

“But . . . he doesn’t actually understand any of them,” Peer said.

“No more than a parrot does, when it squawks out a demand for a cracker,” Daniel affirmed, then let out a squawk of his own as Dappa kicked him in the shin under the table.

“What a remarkable feat!  You should exhibet him!”

“What do you think I am doing right now?”

How was the weather yesterday?” Peer inquired of Dappa, in French.

In the morning it was miserable and rainy,” Dappa returned.  “After noon I thought it would clear but, alas, it was still overcast until nightfall.  Only as I was getting ready for bed did I begin to see stars shining through gaps between clouds.  Could I trouble you for a cracker?”

“I say, the French pirate who taught him that trick must have been an educated man!” Peer exclaimed.  Then he got a look on his face as if he were thinking.  Daniel had learned, in his almost seventy years, not to expect much of people who got such looks, because thinking really was something one ought to do all of the time.  “One would suppose there would be no point in holding a conversation with a man who does not understand what he is saying.  And yet he described yesterday’s weather better than I could!  In fact, I think I’ll use his wording in tomorrow’s edition!”  Again, now, the thoughtful look. “If he could relate other experiences-such as the tete-a-tete with the Duchess–as faithfully as he recalls the weather, it would make my interview with him ever so much easier.  I had come prepared to do it all in grunts and sign languages!” And Peer gave a note-book in his hip-pocket and ominous pat.

“I suppose that whenever one speaks in the abstract–which is to say most of the time–what one is really doing is interacting with some sort of image that is held in the mind,” Dappa said.  “For example, yesterday’s weather is not here in the Kit-Cat Clubb with us.  I cannot feel yesterday’s rain on my skin, nor can I see yester-eve’s stars with my eyes.  When I describe these things to you (in French or any other language) I am really engaging in some sort of internal colloquy with a stored image inside of my brain.  It is an image I may call up on demand, as a Duke might demand that a certain painting of his be brought down out of the garret.  Once it is before my mind’s eye, I may see it as if it were there, and describe it.”

“That is all well and good for recollecting what you have gathered in through your senses, and stored in the garret, as it were,” Peer said. “So I could ask you to relocate your observations of the Duchess of Qwghlm today, and rely on your account.  But as you do not understand the conversation you had with her, or indeed the one you are having with me now, I fear your interpretation of what went on at Leicester House might be wide of the mark.” He spoke haltingly, unsure of how to converse with someone who didn’t understand what he was saying.

Preying on this, Daniel inquired, “But how could he interpret anything if he didn’t understand it?”

This stopped Peer’s gob for a few awkward moments.

“I would refer you to the work of Spinoza,” Dappa said, “whose words are of course perfect gibberish to me, but who wrote in his Ethics, ‘The order and connexion of ideas is the same as the order and connexion of things.’  Meaning that if there are two things, call them A and B, that have a particular relationship to each other, for example, my lord Wragby’s wig, and my lord Wragby’s head, and if I have in my mind an idea of  my lord Wragby’s wig, call it alpha, and an idea of his head, call it beta, then the relationship between alpha and beta is the same as between A and B.  And owing to this property of minds, it is possible for me to construct in my head an whole universe of ideas, yet each idea will relate to all of the other ideas in precisely the same way that the things represented by those ideas relate to one another; lo, ’tis as if I have created a microcosm ‘tween my ears, without understanding a bit of it.    And some of the ideas may be records of sensory impressions, for example, yesterday’s weather.  But others may be abstract concepts out of religion, philosophy, mathematics, or what have you–not that I’d know, since to me they are all a meaningless parade of hallucinations.  But insofar as they are all ideas, they are fungible.  Whatever their origins may have been, they are all now con-fused into the same currency, and so I may speak of the Pythagorean Theorem or the Treaty of Utrcht as well as I may speak of yesterday’s weather.  To me, they are all just crackers–as you are, my lord Wragby.”

“That is quite clear,” Peer said vaguely, for he had gone a bit glassy-eyed round the point where Dappa had begun to use Greek letters.  —The System of the World, pp 168-70 (ISBN-13 978-0-06-075086-2).

So anxiousmofo’s dilemma concerning Pat is very similar to Peer’s w/r/t/ Dappawork–both being in anxiousmofo’s terms “philosophical zombies.”  And my answer is the same to both: There is no discernable, measureable difference between what goes on in Dappa’s head and the heads of others.  Peer’s sanctimonious feelings of superiority over Dappa let him fall into that trap.  Anxiousmofo notes that there is something “unparsimonious” about asserting that someone else is a “philosophical zombie.”  And I agree wholeheartedly.  After all, in the days in which Stepehenson’s novels are set they still killed one of a set of twins, arguing that only one could possibly have been born with a soul. 

N.B.: I never said that there was no “real world,” only that we do not have any access to it, and that since the worlds people construct inside their heads are so much more complicated, and so often in conflict with the ones that other people are creating inside their heads, it is useful to set aside the quest for that “real world” and focus upon the ways in which we construct our own.  I will be examining some of the advantages of this particular strategy as I continue to formalize this exposition of the Radical Constructivist worldview. 


1. caveblogem - January 18, 2007

I just noticed that I didn’t directly answer anxiousmofo’s question. So: No. It would make no difference to me. I would switch doctors, I suppose.

2. Cyndi - January 18, 2007

I would switch doctors too… but I have long ago discovered that I prefer the reality I perceive to the reality that is so obnoxiously real. I tend to go by the old customer service training axiom, “people will never remember what you say, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

I imagine that most people are like me in that I will ignore certain truths in order to maintain the feeling I have about a person. It’s almost like a group of people still wanting to believe that Michael Jackson has not gone plum crazy even after watching all the prime time specials and news stories that tell otherwise or the groups of liberals who, no matter what George Bush does, will always hate him.

However, I am only imagining that most people are like me… this may not be true at all. I simply choose to believe that I’m not a freak.

3. Cyndi - January 18, 2007

I will also perceive that I have a tendency to run-on sentences and mentally berate myself for the perceived failing for the rest of today.

4. anxiousmofo - January 19, 2007

The phrase “intuition pump” is one which I stole from Daniel Dennett, from Freedom Evolves if I remember correctly. That section with Dappa et al happens to be one of my favorite sections in those books.

I know I haven’t actually addressed anything of substance in your post, but that will have to wait until a time when I’m not trying to hurry out of my office. This is definitely an interesting discussion.

By the way, the next time I mention Spinoza, I’ll be sure to preface it with “WARNING: CONTAINS SPINOZA!” As with the phrase “intuition pump,” I might completely neglect to supply attribution.

5. caveblogem - January 20, 2007


Definitely get out of the office first. Have to keep those priorities straight. Is this Daniel Dennett somebody I should read? He sounds like one more clever person I’ve never heard of.

Regarding your not having addressed the substance of my post, that’s perfectly O.K., since the discussion seems to have gone like that from the start. A couple of days ago I ended the exchange with SilverTiger because I didn’t see how I could address the ideas I originally wished to address while constantly responding to assertions about things that I hadn’t said, and without substantive agreement about what I was saying.

I should have put the Spinoza warning at the top of the post, I guess, but I was afraid people would think it applies to the entire website, which it does, but only in trace quantities that are not dangerous to the casual visitor. Or maybe it should have been further down so that it could have been more clearly associated with the Stephenson quote. I didn’t mean to tar you with that brush. Sorry!

6. anxiousmofo - January 20, 2007

Is Daniel Dennett someone you should read? Possibly. When I read his books I find myself disagreeing with him or shaking my head almost as much as I find myself agreeing with him. Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea are his best books, in my opinion.

I like the idea of “trace quantities” of Spinoza. (Warning: this comment was produced in a facility which occasionally processes the writings of Benedict de Spinoza.) I didn’t think you were tarring me with the brush of Spinozism, although you are certainly welcome to do so. My point was simply that I was amused by the idea of warning readers beforehand of the inclusion of Spinoza.

That’s a particularly apt passage from Stephenson’s book, by the way, since the central point of this discussion is whether we can discover whether Spinoza was right when he claimed that “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things,” or at least whether we can determine if that is the case with a particular set of ideas.

7. caveblogem - January 20, 2007

Thanks, anxiousmofo. I’ll keep an eye out for Dennett. Bookmooch doesn’t have any of his works, which usually indicates a pretty good writer.

I think that I have offended quite a few people, SilverTiger included, with these particular posts on Radical Constructivism, despite my best efforts at not doing that. So I’m trying really hard to keep from pissing off people who actually take the trouble to read my stuff. So I value your good humor.

I think that SilverTiger regarded the question you point to as the “central point of the discussion,” too. That’s why I told him that we were talking past each other. It was never central to what I was trying to say. What I was trying to do was explain RC, which sets aside that question in favor of pursuing an interesting set of postulates about how people think. I thought that there must be some way to describe what philosophers like Derrida and Foucault were saying without all of the jargon. I now suspect that most people simply cannot put aside the question of whether or not there is a real world, even temporarily, for the sake of argument, provisionally.

Perhaps I should have made a better argument as to why doing so was important. Why put aside reality, just for a moment? Well, take the equation X squared + 1 = 0. Equations of exactly that sort are necessary to build complicated things like bridges. But what happens when you solve for X? You get an imaginary number, a number that when squared, yields a negative number. Impossible, but completely necessary.

And I have read some postmodern stuff and find some of it incredibly valuable for problem-solving. I write grants and other stuff and do marketing research for a living and I can tell you that these reasoning tools are incredibly valuable in my work. For a time during the 1990s recruiters were snapping up literary critics to see if they could use these insights to generate cash, and some accomplished that goal, too. But to use these tools one has to, I think, set aside the whole question of a “real world,” at least temporarily.

Some people find this hard to do. Some people see the connections between their epistemological stance and their faith, whether that faith is in a god, gods, science, or the faith that there is no god (atheism) and they rebel against the notion for that reason, they are afraid to let go, even temporarily, provisionally.

But some, I think, find the whole thing esoteric and boring. (I think my wife is in this camp. She doesn’t seem to care about any of this stuff.) I had thought about starting this discussion out with some assertion like “gross evidence seems overwhelming that there is a real world out there, which we can access to an alarming degree. But let’s set that aside for a moment.” But after that, it would probably have been hard to interest even two people in a discussion of Radical Constructivism.

8. anxiousmofo - January 21, 2007

Are you saying that Radical Constructivism is more of a methodology than a philosophical stance? Could that be the root of my misunderstanding?

9. caveblogem - January 22, 2007

anxiousmofo: I’ve been thinking about this one all day, and I am not sure I understand the question. It is nothing as systematic as a methodology, I would think. It may be more like a philosophy, if that word could be understood as a way of looking at the world. But it is not so comprehensive as other phiosophies because it doesn’t assert its own validity, yet another thing about it that people find difficult to get a handle on.

The question of whether or not a “real world” that we have access to exists was, for me, and for radical constructivist thinkers, never the important issue. In large part this is because so much of the stuff that goes on inside our heads has to do with our own perspectives and history, and shapes, and is shaped by, our language and culture.

The material aspects of the world, the ones that seem so obviously “real” are rarely the problematic ones in my experience. All of the really difficult problems seem to have to do with words and images and relationships that are not so tangible, and instead depend heavily on one’s point of view. Setting aside the question of the existence of a real world is necessary to begin to see that our use of words and images “constructs,” both in our minds and in the minds of the people with whom we communicate, worlds that, for all intents and purposes, are quite “real.”

A Story:

A father has ordered that, after his death, half of his inheritance shall go to his oldest son, a third to the second, and a ninth to the youngest. His estate, however, consists of seventeen camels, and although his sons rack their brains trying to solve the problem, they find no way to obey the father’s last wish without cutting up some of the animals. Finally a mullah, a wandering preacher, comes riding by, and they ask for his advice. He tells them: “Here–I’ll add my camel to yours; that makes eighteen. You, the oldest, get half, that is nine. You, the second oldest, get a third, that makes six. You, the youngest, shall have a ninth, or two camels. Together that makes seventeen camels and laves one over, namely mine.” And with this he mounts the animal and rides away. Heinz Von Foerster, Reality Adaptation or ‘Adapted Reality’?” in Munchausen’s Pigtail, Paul Watzsawick, ed., p. 143

The mullah does not actually give the camel to the sons. That was a temporary construction that allowed them to satisfy their father’s last wish without cutting up valuable livestock. If one of the sons had said “no, I’m sorry. We can’t accept your camel. It was not part of the estate, and that wouldn’t be right, the thing wouldn’t have worked. That sort of provisional flexibility with regard to “reality,” is the kind of space that is needed for a different kind of problem-solving. There is nothing mystical about it, really. But you do have to put aside “reality,” (the fiction that the mullah is giving away his camel) to make the thing work.

There are many other stories like this. All of them look hideously clever like this, like epiphanies, sudden flashes of brilliant insight. I believe, however, that they are not, because I have created things like this simply by using reasoning tools that spring from a little work done from the RC point of view.

I don’t know if that helps or if it makes the whole thing worse.

10. Nannette in Fantasticland - January 23, 2007

Hi, caveblogem! You say above that some think this is “esoteric and boring,” but perhaps another way to think of it is that people’s interest in big questions waxes and wanes. I know for me that if I am overwhelmed with the practicalities of life–take care of the kid and the dog and the laundry and grocery shopping and do my work at the office–that I do not give much time to thinking about things like construction of reality or how to hold two separate reality constructs in ones brain simultaneously. I still value discussion of and reflection upon such questions, but it may not show because the business of life interferes or supersedes.

Personally, I’m in favor of people having periodic retreats where they go off into the woods somewhere and spend some time alone thinking. I’ve been toying with the idea of asking my husband what he would think of my doing so this year for a week, but haven’t yet brought it up. The luxury of time to think. Ah. Sounds like a great gift.

Here’s a quotation I came across that may relate to this discussion of reality that you are resisting (understandably–I get what you are trying to do and see the need to set aside realityin order to discuss RC concepts). This a Zen saying:

“When you study something with your whole mind and body, you will have direct experience. When you believe you have some problem, it means your practice is not good enough. When your practice is good enough, whatever you see, whatever you do, that is the direct experience of reality.”


11. Anxious MoFo - January 23, 2007

My question (which wasn’t worded terribly well) was an attempt to ask whether Radical Constructivism is a philosophical stance that there may or may not be a real world, or if it is the position that in some domains the question of whether there is a real world or not is not terribly useful, and can provisionally be discarded. It sounds more like the latter.

I have to admit that I have a strong allergy to postmodernism, which stems from my failed attempts to read Derrida when I was a young ‘un. His writing is incredibly opaque, and, as far as I can tell, is deliberately so. I’m not talking about difficulty, but about what appeared to me to be a deliberate lack of clarity and precision. That criticism has nothing to do with the content of postmodern ideas, obviously, but it’s a large part of why I get all jumpy when I encounter them.

Nice quote, Nanette in Fantasticland. My practice isn’t good enough :) Do you happen to know the source of that quote?

12. caveblogem - January 24, 2007


I know that the interest most people have in this stuff waxes and wanes, and that the everyday business of life can drive it down even further into the background. I asserted earlier in this thread (I think it was this thread, but it is now too long to actually read in none sitting) that my wife doesn’t care about this stuff. That’s not actually true, I think in retrospect.

My wife is a literary critic and has to face many of these ideas in the course of her work. So perhaps some of what I see as indifference is a desire to get away from her job at the dinner table, or a resentment (which I also feel, and which Anxious Mofo seems to be expressing) toward the opacity of postmodern prose. Much of the interest I have on this stuff, too, comes from symbolic logic, mathematics, and cybernetics, background which she doesn’t share. And finally, she is busy, busy, busy. Even though she is now tenured, the expectations of professors in the humanities are enormous and growing every year. Finally, she is a woman, so society expects far more of her than it does of me.

You should tell your husband of your interest in such a retreat. It sounds like a good idea, and I hear that many people find a great deal of value in that sort of thing. I suspect that I am too unstable a person to benefit from such, and that I need too much routine in my life. But sometimes I wonder.

13. caveblogem - January 24, 2007

Anxious Mofo said “My question was an attempt to ask whether Radical Constructivism is a philosophical stance that there may or may not be a real world, or if it is the position that in some domains the question of whether there is a real world or not is not terribly useful, and can provisionally be discarded.”

It is both. There may or may not be a real world, and (thus, if you prefer) the notion that there is can usually be provisionally discarded.

I think there are several reasons for the opacity of much postmodern thought. First, there is the stumbling block that many people have whereby they don’t realize that the assumption underlying much of the enterprise and subsequent prose is that “there may or may not be a real world, and the notion that there is can usually be provisionally discarded.”

Second, there is, with Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Bahktin, Zinoviev, Korzybski, and many others, translation and/or second language problems. (During the 1980s I saw a panel discussion with a bunch of diplomats around a table talking about nuclear proliferation. Seated at the table was none other than Jaques Derrida. “Oh, my,” I said to myself. “We are in a pickle if this is the state of communications between diplomats.” It wasn’t just his English, I think, but that was certainly part of it.)

Finally, and most people wouldn’t agree with me on this, I think, there is the professionalization of scholarship in the humanities to blame.

When my wife applied for her current position she was one of 300 applicants with more-or-less freshly minted Ph.D.s. One can distinguish oneself from the herd in a variety of ways, of course, but in the top schools one often does it by delving further into a particular area, without much regard to being able to put ones prose into words the laity can grasp. Those laity are not the audience for this stuff. The audience is a small community of scholars (a committee of three or four in many cases). And since there are too many applicants chasing too few positions, the impenetrable prose helps weed out the ones who cannot find their way (a side-effect of the quest to extend the scholarship) So there is no incentive to write in jargon-free SWE (and in any case there is little time to do so in the life of these scholars.)

14. anxiousmofo - January 24, 2007

A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend about these great joke paintings by Richard Prince. In an interview, Richard Prince said, “The jokes are funny. The paintings aren’t.” This is the kind of comment that can make people think that art is some kind of con. It’s not, but it is a game, and some of the ideas that artists play with are extremely serious.

A few hours after my rant about opaque postmodernist prose, I sat down to continue reading Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Why, I wondered, am I receptive to postmodern ideas in the context of art and fiction but not in philosophy? Here is a book which consists of a text which is expanded upon and questioned by other texts, in multiple nesting layers, without providing definitive answers as to which of these texts (if any) happens to be the most accurate description of the reality in the fiction, or even whether the events described in the main text (which is a description of another text, a film) actually happened.

So this thread is making me wonder whether my longstanding dislike of postmodern philosophy is something I should reconsider.

15. caveblogem - January 25, 2007


When I first saw your blog it was because I was tag-surfing (one of the tags I surf is “books”) and I saw your post on _Infinite Jest_, the musical. Throughout this conversation I keep wondering how somebody who likes David Foster Wallace could be remotely troubled by postmodern ideas. Wallace is post-postmodern, I think, a fish that doesn’t think about the water, or even his scales, except as one more idea to turn over and expand upon.

I looked at the joke paintings site. It’s pretty interesting, reminded me of Magritte?’s (Mondrian?’s–I’m hopeless with artists) painting “This is not a pipe”. I’m always troubled by anyone who says something is not funny, but I know what he means. It has to be hard to make a living as an artist. I learned to paint (apartments) from a guy that was marginally sucessful with landscapes, shown in Baltimore, NY, and Sun Valley galleries. I think he could have been much more sucessful if he enjoyed the sales part of it more, the lifestyle.

He was too honest. This is not to say that I think that all art is a con, or even modern and postmodern art, I don’t. But to make a living at it you have to compete with so many other artists in a society that, for the most part, doesn’t take the time to understand anything complicated, much less art, and won’t buy anything they can’t either appreciate at a glance, or be sold on it because everybody else wants it. Fertile ground for cons, I think.

16. Nannette in Fantasticland - January 25, 2007

Hi, Anxious MoFo.

That quotation comes form my calendar at work. I assume that it is a translation form the beautiful calligraphy on the painting pictured on January’s page. The calendar says the work was doen by Ekaku Kakuin (1685-1768), and the painting is entitled “Two blind men crossing a log bridge.” Now that I think of it, that quotation seems to make more sense to me in context of thye picture and the title. The scrappy little guys are hunched over and flailing around trying to keep their balance over a huge log. Is this what it is like for most people to “practice”–flaiing around and unable to access “reality”?

I share your thoughts about postmodern lit vs philosophy to some degree. In my case, I think I enjoy the lit and art more because it is more fun to engage with. I was thining of Tim O’Brien’s _Once More to the Lake_, in which the reader is taken on a wild ride and never given a chance to KNOW what happened. I love that book, especially becasue I find the alternating “realities” very fun. It’s like playing pretend, which I loved to do as a child and my son continues now (though why I do not play pretend with HIM that often is a mystery). Some postmodern theorists and philosophers can be fun, especially when they are really playing with language. But sometimes we miss the fun there becasue our expectations of philosophy are that it be serious business.

Not sure I’m making sense! Perhaps I’ll also go back and take a look at some of those texts on my dusty top shelf….

17. Nannette in Fantasticland - January 25, 2007

eeghads–I can’t type worth a darn.



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