Constructivist epistemology

Constructivist epistemology is a branch in philosophy of science maintaining that scientific knowledge is constructed by the scientific community, who seek to measure and construct models of the natural world. Natural science therefore consists of mental constructs that aim to explain sensory experience and measurements.

According to constructivists, the world is independent of human minds, but knowledge of the world is always a human and social construction. Constructivism opposes the philosophy of objectivism, embracing the belief that a human can come to know the truth about the natural world not mediated by scientific approximations with different degrees of validity and accuracy.

According to constructivists there is no single valid methodology in science, but rather a diversity of useful methods.

Origin of the term
The term originates from psychology, education, and social constructivism. The expression “constructivist epistemology” was first used by Jean Piaget, 1967, with plural form in the famous article from the “Encyclopédie de la Pléiade” Logique et connaissance scientifique or “Logic and Scientific knowledge”, an important text for epistemology. He refers directly to the mathematician Brouwer and his radical constructivism.

The terms Constructionism and constructivism are often, but should not be, used interchangeably. Constructionism is an approach to learning that was developed by Papert; the approach was greatly influenced by his work with Piaget, but it is very different. Constructionism involves the creation of a product to show learning. It is believed by constructivists that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are socially constructed. Marx was among the first to suggest such an ambitious expansion of the power of ideas to inform the material realities of people’s lives.

Concepts and ideas
For constructivist thinking, reality is a construction to some extent “invented” by who observes it. One of the most common criticisms of radical constructivism is its apparent proximity to solipsism.

Constructivism affirms that reality can never be known as what it is, since when faced with the object of knowledge, it is only possible to order the data that the object offers in the theoretical framework available. Thus, for example, for constructivism science does not offer an exact description of how things are, but only an approximation to the truth, which serves as long as an intersubjectively more valid explanation is not available. For constructivism an exact description of how things are does not exist, because reality has no existence independent of the subject-observer. [ citation needed ] Taking an example of Ernst von Glasersfeld, the path chosen by science when dealing with reality is like that of a key that fits the lock, although it is unknown how the lock is made. At the moment, the key that is available serves the purpose of the person who uses it, despite ignoring the substance of the matter.

The constructivist approach opposes the cognitive theory of information processing; since it considers that reality is neither unique, objective nor independent to whom it seeks to describe and explain. The subject actively constructs his own tools and symbols to manipulate in a concrete (physical) and abstract (semantic) way the external world and his conception of himself. Emphasize that manipulated symbols are semiotic constructs, that is, patterns of communication behavior including signs and their systems of significance, and the means by which human beings communicate. In turn, these symbols are socio-historically produced, since the subject begins to construct meaning already immersed in the social and cultural systems in which he was born.

Constructivism stems from a number of philosophies. For instance, early development can be attributed to the thought of Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus (Everything flows, nothing stands still), Protagoras (Man is the measure of all things). Protagoras is clearly represented by Plato and hence the tradition as a relativist. The Pyrrhonist sceptics have also been so interpreted. (Although this is more contentious.)

Following the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, with the phenomenology and the event, Kant gives a decisive contradiction to Cartesians’ epistemology that has grown since Descartes despite Giambattista Vico calling in Scienza nuova (“New Science”) in 1725 that “the norm of the truth is to have made it”. The Enlightenment’s claim of the universality of Reason as the only true source of knowledge generated a Romantic reaction involving an emphasis on the separate natures of races, species, sexes and types of human.

Gaston Bachelard, who is known for his physics psychoanalysis and the definition of an “epistemologic obstacle” that can disturb a changing of scientific paradigm as the one that occurred between classical mechanics and Einstein’s relativism, opens the teleological way with “The meditation on the object takes the form of the project”. In the following famous saying, he insists that the ways in which questions are posed determines the trajectory of scientific movement, before summarizing “nothing is given, all is constructed”: “And, irrespective of what one might assume, in the life of a science, problems do not arise by themselves. It is precisely this that marks out a problem as being of the true scientific spirit: all knowledge is in response to a question. If there were no question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself. Nothing is given. All is constructed.”, Gaston Bachelard (La formation de l’esprit scientifique, 1934). While quantum mechanics is starting to grow, Gaston Bachelard makes a call for a new science in Le nouvel esprit scientifique (The New Scientific Spirit).
Paul Valéry, French poet (20th century) reminds us of the importance of representations and action: “We have always sought explanations when it was only representations that we could seek to invent”, “My hand feels touched as well as it touches; reality says this, and nothing more”.
This link with action, which could be called a “philosophy of action”, was well represented by Spanish poet Antonio Machado: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.
Ludwik Fleck establishes scientific constructivism by introducing the notions of thought collective (Denkkollektiv), and thought style (Denkstil), through which the evolution of science is much more understandable, because the research objects can be described in terms of the assumptions (thought style) that are shared for practical but also inherently social reasons, or just because any thought collective tends to preserve itself. These notions have been drawn upon by Thomas Kuhn.
Norbert Wiener gives another defense of teleology in 1943 Behavior, Intention and Teleology and is one of the creators of cybernetics.
Jean Piaget, after the creation in 1955 of the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva, first uses the expression “constructivist epistemologies” (see above). According to Ernst von Glasersfeld, Jean Piaget is “the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing” (in An Exposition of Constructivism: Why Some Like it Radical, 1990) and “the most prolific constructivist in our century” (in Aspects of Radical Constructivism, 1996).
J. L. Austin is associated with the view that speech is not only passively describing a given reality, but it can change the (social) reality to which it is applied through speech acts.
Herbert A. Simon called “the sciences of the artificial” these new sciences (cybernetics, cognitive sciences, decision and organisation sciences) that, because of the abstraction of their object (information, communication, decision), cannot match with the classical epistemology and its experimental method and refutability.
Gregory Bateson and his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972).
George Kelly (psychologist) and his book The Psychology of Personal Constructs (1955).
Heinz von Foerster, invited by Jean Piaget, presented “Objects: tokens for (Eigen-)behaviours” in 1976 in Geneva at a genetic epistemology symposium, a text that would become a reference for constructivist epistemology. His epistemological arguments were summarized in the book The Dream of Reality by Lynn Segal.
Paul Watzlawick, who supervised in 1984 the publication of Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? (Contributions to constructivism).
Ernst von Glasersfeld, who has promoted since the end of the 70s radical constructivism.
Edgar Morin and his book La méthode (1977–2004, six volumes).
Mioara Mugur-Schächter who is also a quantum mechanics specialist.
Jean-Louis Le Moigne for his encyclopedic work on constructivist epistemology and his General Systems theory (see “Le Moigne’s Defense of Constructivism” by Ernst von Glasersfeld).
Niklas Luhmann who developed “operative constructivism” in the course of developing his theory of autopoietic social systems, drawing on the works of (among others) Bachelard, Valéry, Bateson, von Foerster, von Glasersfeld and Morin.

Constructivism and sciences

Social constructivism in sociology
One version of social constructivism contends that categories of knowledge and reality are actively created by social relationships and interactions. These interactions also alter the way in which scientific episteme is organized.

Social activity presupposes human beings inhabiting shared forms of life, and in the case of social construction, utilizing semiotic resources (meaning-making and signifying) with reference to social structures and institutions. Several traditions use the term Social Constructivism: psychology (after Lev Vygotsky), sociology (after Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, themselves influenced by Alfred Schütz), sociology of knowledge (David Bloor), sociology of mathematics (Sal Restivo), philosophy of mathematics (Paul Ernest). Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy can be seen as a foundation for social constructivism, with its key theoretical concepts of language games embedded in forms of life.

Constructivism in philosophy of science
Thomas Kuhn argued that changes in scientists’ views of reality not only contain subjective elements, but result from group dynamics, “revolutions” in scientific practice and changes in “paradigms”. As an example, Kuhn suggested that the Sun-centric Copernican “revolution” replaced the Earth-centric views of Ptolemy not because of empirical failures, but because of a new “paradigm” that exerted control over what scientists felt to be the more fruitful way to pursue their goals.

But paradigm debates are not really about relative problem-solving ability, though for good reasons they are usually couched in those terms. Instead, the issue is which paradigm should in future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise…. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.
— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp 157-8

The view of reality as accessible only through models was called model-dependent realism by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. While not rejecting an independent reality, model-dependent realism says that we can know only an approximation of it provided by the intermediary of models. These models evolve over time as guided by scientific inspiration and experiment.

In the field of the social sciences, constructivism as an epistemology urges that researchers reflect upon the paradigms that may be underpinning their research, and in the light of this that they become more open to consider other ways of interpreting any results of the research. Furthermore, the focus is on presenting results as negotiable constructs rather than as models that aim to “represent” social realities more or less accurately. Norma Romm in her book Accountability in Social Research (2001) argues that social researchers can earn trust from participants and wider audiences insofar as they adopt this orientation and invite inputs from others regarding their inquiry practices and the results thereof.

Constructivism and psychology
In psychology, constructivism refers to many schools of thought that, though extraordinarily different in their techniques (applied in fields such as education and psychotherapy), are all connected by a common critique of previous standard approaches, and by shared assumptions about the active constructive nature of human knowledge. In particular, the critique is aimed at the “associationist” postulate of empiricism, “by which the mind is conceived as a passive system that gathers its contents from its environment and, through the act of knowing, produces a copy of the order of reality.”:16

In contrast, “constructivism is an epistemological premise grounded on the assertion that, in the act of knowing, it is the human mind that actively gives meaning and order to that reality to which it is responding”.:16 The constructivist psychologies theorize about and investigate how human beings create systems for meaningfully understanding their worlds and experiences.

Constructivism and education
Joe L. Kincheloe has published numerous social and educational books on critical constructivism (2001, 2005, 2008), a version of constructivist epistemology that places emphasis on the exaggerated influence of political and cultural power in the construction of knowledge, consciousness, and views of reality. In the contemporary mediated electronic era, Kincheloe argues, dominant modes of power have never exerted such influence on human affairs. Coming from a critical pedagogical perspective, Kincheloe argues that understanding a critical constructivist epistemology is central to becoming an educated person and to the institution of just social change.

Kincheloe’s characteristics of critical constructivism:

Knowledge is socially constructed: World and information co-construct one another
Consciousness is a social construction
Political struggles: Power plays an exaggerated role in the production of knowledge and consciousness
The necessity of understanding consciousness—even though it does not lend itself to traditional reductionistic modes of measurability
The importance of uniting logic and emotion in the process of knowledge and producing knowledge
The inseparability of the knower and the known
The centrality of the perspectives of oppressed peoples—the value of the insights of those who have suffered as the result of existing social arrangements
The existence of multiple realities: Making sense of a world far more complex that we originally imagined
Becoming humble knowledge workers: Understanding our location in the tangled web of reality
Standpoint epistemology: Locating ourselves in the web of reality, we are better equipped to produce our own knowledges
Constructing practical knowledge for critical social action
Complexity: Overcoming reductionism
Knowledge is always entrenched in a larger process
The centrality of interpretation: Critical hermeneutics
The new frontier of classroom knowledge: Personal experiences intersecting with pluriversal information
Constructing new ways of being human: Critical ontology

Constructivist trends

Cultural constructivism
Cultural constructivism asserts that knowledge and reality are a product of their cultural context, meaning that two independent cultures will likely form different observational methodologies.

Radical constructivism
Ernst von Glasersfeld was a prominent proponent of radical constructivism. This claims that knowledge is not a commodity which is transported from one mind into another. Rather, it is up to the individual to “link up” specific interpretations of experiences and ideas with their own reference of what is possible and viable. That is, the process of constructing knowledge, of understanding, is dependent on the individual’s subjective interpretation of their active experience, not what “actually” occurs. Understanding and acting are seen by radical constructivists not as dualistic processes, but “circularly conjoined”.

Constructivist Foundations is a free online journal publishing peer reviewed articles on radical constructivism by researchers from multiple domains.

Relational constructivism
Relational constructivism can be perceived as a relational consequence of the radical constructivism. In contrary to social constructivism, it picks up the epistemological threads and maintains the radical constructivist idea that humans cannot overcome their limited conditions of reception (i.e. self referentially operating cognition). Therefore, humans are not able to come to objective conclusions about the world.

In spite of the subjectivity of human constructions of reality, relational constructivism focusses on the relational conditions applying to human perceptional processes. Björn Kraus puts it in a nutshell:

„It is substantial for relational constructivism that it basically originates from an epistemological point of view, thus from the subject and its construction processes. Coming from this perspective it then focusses on the (not only social, but also material) relations under which these cognitive construction processes are performed. Consequently, it‘s not only about social construction processes, but about cognitive construction processes performed under certain relational conditions.“

Critical constructivism
A series of articles published in the journal Critical Inquiry (1991) served as a manifesto for the movement of critical constructivism in various disciplines, including the natural sciences. Not only truth and reality, but also “evidence”, “document”, “experience”, “fact”, “proof”, and other central categories of empirical research (in physics, biology, statistics, history, law, etc.) reveal their contingent character as a social and ideological construction. Thus, a “realist” or “rationalist” interpretation is subjected to criticism. Kincheloe’s political and pedagogical notion (above) has emerged as a central articulation of the concept.

Genetic epistemology
James Mark Baldwin invented this expression, which was later popularized by Jean Piaget. From 1955 to 1980, Piaget was Director of the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva.

Constructivism and scientific disciplines
It is often from specific scientific disciplines that epistemology has developed. Among the references to constructivism, several authors have referred to different periods in the “new sciences”: Giambattista Vico and his book La scienza nuova from 1708, Gaston Bachelard and The new scientific spirit (1934), Herbert Simon and the new science of the artificial (The science of the artificial, 1969).

Constructivism and physical science
The Mioara Mugur-Schächter’s Relativistic Conceptualization Method (so-called MCR), which emerged from quantum physics, can clearly be classified as a constructivist method.

This formalized epistemology (MCR) introduces a real epistemological leap: it is a qualitative but formalized epistemology, constructed by appropriate generalizations from the study of the foundations of quantum mechanics. The approach is deductive, based on a limited number of principles, postulates and definitions. It is rooted directly in a-conceptual physical factuality. It establishes a deep unification, genetic, between logic and probabilities. The place of meaning in Shannon’s theory of “information” is elucidated. We construct an algorithm for identifying the factual law of probabilities to be posited on the universe of elementary events of a probability space. It defines relativistic measures of complexity that preserve the semantic contents.

Herbert Simon and the “sciences of the artificial”
By the expression “sciences of the artificial”, Herbert Simon intends to designate those disciplines whose object of study is created by the man and not coming from the nature, namely: from the theory of the information, cybernetics, computer science, automation, but also the sciences of cognition, decision, etc. These disciplines, which have not found a place in the classical classification of the sciences observing nature, are reintegrated by constructivism. Indeed, it considers any object of study as constructed by a subject, including the traditional natural sciences.

Constructivism psychology
In psychology, constructivism is considered as a theory of learning, developed, among others, by Jean Piaget or by members of the Palo Alto School in reaction to behaviorism.

The School of Palo Alto is a stream of thought and research that took the name of the city of Palo Alto in California, from the early 1950s. It is quoted in psychology and psycho-sociology as well as in science. information and communication. This current is at the origin of family therapy and brief therapy. Its founders include Gregory Bateson, Donald D. Jackson, John Weakland, Jay Haley, Richard Fisch and Paul Watzlawick.

In 1976, Heinz von Foerster, who, like Gregory Bateson, had participated in the Macy Conferences, joined the MRI on the occasion of the second Donald D. Jackson Memorial Lecture, during which he gave a presentation on the scope of the fundamentals of radical constructivism on psychotherapy.

Constructivism gradually becomes one of the foundations of Palo-Alto’s approach, as evidenced by the publication in 1981 of The Invention of Reality, Contributions to Constructivism under the direction of Paul Watzlawick, which includes contributions by von Foerster and von Glasersfeld.

Social constructivism
In sociology, social constructivism is at the intersection of different currents of thought and was presented by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their book The Social Construction of Reality (1966) following the works of Alfred Schütz. The latter seeks to discover the way in which social reality and social phenomena are “constructed”, that is to say the way in which these phenomena are created, institutionalized and transformed into traditions. In his work Things Say, Sociologist Pierre Bourdieuproposes to give to his sociological theory the name of “constructivist structuralism” or of “structuralist constructivism”, thus displaying his will to overcome the frequent opposition in sociology between structuralism (which affirms the submission of the individual to rules structures) and constructivism (which makes the social world the product of the free action of social actors).

However, it should be noted, as noted Marc Loriol in the article “Reflections on the concept of” social construction “” [ref. necessary], that the conception of the reality of sociologists using the notion of “social construction” is diverse, sometimes moving away from the conception of the reality of constructivist epistemologies.

Economics and Constructivism
Claude Mouchot presents in his book Economic Methodology what can constitute a constructivist approach in economics. Evoking the epistemological conceptions of physics, he says: “The prevailing view today: constructivism”. In particular, it shows that “representations of the economy are part of the economy”.

Robert Delorme did some work on complexity in economics.

In addition, one can note the development of a constructivist approach in geography 40.

Contribution of constructivism
Constructivism proposes to go beyond classical antinomies idealism / empiricism, subject / object, etc.

This position goes beyond scientific realism while avoiding the trap of relativism.

By seeking to produce actionable “walking” knowledge, constructivism rehabilitates the notion of analogy and gives its nobility to applied disciplines such as engineering and management. A century before the Descartes method, explains Jean-Louis Le Moigne 41, Leonardo da Vinci invents on paper the parachute, the helicopter and the submarine. It is thus, he continues, a symbol of the intelligence conceiving a valid model by the drawing: it is the disegno in Italian which gave design in English.

Numerous criticisms have been leveled at Constructivist epistemology. The most common one is that it either explicitly advocates or implicitly reduces to relativism. This is because it takes the concept of truth to be a socially “constructed” (and thereby socially relative) one. This leads to the charge of self-refutation: if what is to be regarded as “true” is relative to a particular social formation, then this very conception of truth must itself be only regarded as being “true” in this society. In another social formation, it may well be false. If so, then social constructivism itself would be false in that social formation. Further, one could then say that social constructivism could be both true and false simultaneously.

Another criticism of constructivism is that it holds that the concepts of two different social formations be entirely different and incommensurate. This being the case, it is impossible to make comparative judgements about statements made according to each worldview. This is because the criteria of judgement will themselves have to be based on some worldview or other. If this is the case, then it brings into question how communication between them about the truth or falsity of any given statement could be established.

The Wittgensteinian philosopher Gavin Kitching argues that constructivists usually implicitly presuppose a deterministic view of language which severely constrains the minds and use of words by members of societies: they are not just “constructed” by language on this view, but are literally “determined” by it. Kitching notes the contradiction here: somehow the advocate of constructivism is not similarly constrained. While other individuals are controlled by the dominant concepts of society, the advocate of constructivism can transcend these concepts and see through them.

Constructivists often claim that constructivism frees because:

it allows oppressed groups to rebuild “the world” according to their own interests rather than the interests of dominant groups in society;

it forces people to respect alternative worldviews of oppressed groups because there is no way to regard them as inferior to mainstream worldviews. But as the Welsgenstein philosopher Gavin Kitching 42 indicates, constructivists usually implicitly adopt a deterministic perspectiveof the language that severely constrains the minds and the use of words by members of societies: these spirits “are not simply constructed” by the language, but they are literally “determined” by it. Kitching points out the contradiction: we do not really know how, but the follower of constructivism is not subject to this deterministic constraint. While other people are the toy of the dominant concepts of their society, the constructivist adept can identify and go beyond these concepts. Edward Mariyani-Squire made a similar remark:

“Even if social constructivism was to be true, there is nothing particularly liberating to know that entities are social constructs. To consider that Nature is a social construct does not necessarily bring any political advantage if, as a political agent, we are systematically stuck, marginalized and subjected by a social construction. Moreover, when one looks at a large part of the social constructivist discourse (in particular that influenced by Michel Foucault), one observes a kind of bifurcation between the theoretician and the non-theoretician. The theoretician always plays the role of the constructor of the discourses, whereas the non-theoretician plays the role of subject constructed in a totally deterministic way.

This is reminiscent of the remark already made about solipsistic theism with here the theoretician, at least at the conceptual level, who “plays God” with his subject (whatever it is). In short, while it is often thought that social constructivism induces flexibility and non-determinism, there is no logical reason not to regard social constructions as fatalistic. “