"Do our thoughts and claims about the world give us rational access to the way the world really is? Can subjective experience ever provide a basis for grasping objective truth? These perennial questions of philosophy reach to the heart of every human endeavor, from education to science to everyday, successful practice. Despite the intuitive and nearly universal appeal of realism, influential thinkers from many fields – including educational theory, psychology, cybernetics, literary criticism, biology, and physics – have long followed the skeptics in denying knowers any kind of reliable bridge to the world.
This slim volume offers the first comprehensive assessment and critique of radical constructivism, a famously skeptical theory of knowledge with a large following across the academic disciplines. Employing a dialogic mode of discourse, the authors have crafted a remarkably accessible treatise that both details the solipsistic perils of antirealism and defends an alternative, constructivist realist account of our place as knowers in the larger, constraining world."
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: Plumbing Philosophy’s Depths (v)
Prologue: Query to Bridges (1)
1. A Point of Departure (5)
2. The Dance of Knowledge (11)
3. Knowledge and its Objects (15)
4. Hypothesis and Reality (19)
5. A Rock in Itself (23)
6. Mapping the Territory (29)
7. Pedagogy and Pragmatism (35)
8. Toleration and Truth (41)
9. Fallibility and Skepticism (45)
10. Believing and Knowing (51)
11. Formalizing the Argument (59)
12. Equivocation on Independence (65)
13. Fitness and Correspondence (73)
14. The Reality of the Subject (77)
15. Ontological Agnosticism and Solipsism (81)
16. Poetry in Action (87)
17. Constructivist Realism (91)
Epilogue: Reply to Govier (101)
Saturday, May 15, 2010
EQUIVOCATION ON INDEPENDENCE
...Hans: You both agree that knowledge is often fallible and mediated because we cannot know for sure whether we are directly in touch with the features of the world?
Russell: I do.
Alison: That’s my understanding, too.
Hans: Then all talk of “mind-independence” demands a god’s eye view of the world.
Alison: How so?
Hans: In order to know whether our minds have grasped the features of a world independent of our minds, we would have to adopt a position external to both from which we could compare the two. But such a position is unavailable to us, since we are constitutively unable to use language or thought to get to a point independent of language or thought.
Alison: I recognize the force of your insight, Hans, that language and thought might be the wrong tools for accessing a world independent of them. This seems to present a serious problem for Russell’s position.
Russell: What other tools do we have? Fortunately, Hans’s concern about knowing a world independent of ourselves confuses two distinct notions of “independence.”
Alison: Please explain.
Russell: As I have observed before, this hunk of granite exists independently of me, in the sense that it existed before I was born, heavily resists my attempts to move it, and so forth. Yet to say this is by no means to deny that I perceive it and have things to say about it. The rock remains largely independent of me even when I bring it into my sphere of awareness.
Alison: So you see no difficulty at all in using language and thought to refer to something outside language and thought?
Russell: None whatsoever. Once we accept that rocks and persons are made out of the same basic stuff, the idea that there would be an unbridgeable gap between us seems foolish. Premise (1), which we discussed above, “we can only know what we have constructed,” equivocates on the very idea of observer-independence.
Hans: Still more bad things to say about premise (1)!
Russell: Sorry, Hans. But tell us again what is it about observer-independence that so troubles the constructivist?
Hans: The problematic notion of an “unexperienced” rock seems to capture it. Such talk implies that we might access the world in a way that “does not involve experience.” I put the same point somewhat differently just now, in saying that it is impossible to use language and thought to get outside of language and thought.
Russell: There are two distinct notions of observer-independence in play here. The first would have the realist claiming that some experiences float free of all observers. But that would be to caricature realism, not critique it. No sane person imagines that we experience the world in a way that does not involve experience!
Allison: So what kind of independence does the realist have in mind?
Russell: The realist simply asserts the logical independence of the nature of the world from our experience of it. All my constructions are, to paraphrase Jules, logically and causally my constructions. No one denies this trivial truth. However, as common sense would have it, many of our ideas refer beyond thought and language to the world itself.
Hans: It still seems to me that, in talking of a reality that is independent of experience in any way, whether logically or causally, realists are imagining themselves speaking or thinking of objects without using language or thought!
Russell: Do you not see the difference between logical independence and causal independence?
Hans: Frankly, I’m not sure that I do.
Russell: Each time that I experience the world, the world and I are causally related.
Hans: I will agree that it seems so experientially.
Russell: It could also be true, even if not pragmatically useful or measurable, that nothing in the universe is entirely causally unrelated to anything else.
Hans: I suppose that may be so even of Jules’s Maturanian multiverse.
Russell: Maybe for present purposes, and in your spirit of modesty, we could confine ourselves to our own universe?
Hans: Does your philosophical training incline you to discount views on the basis simply of their novelty?
Russell: No, but it can prove immensely helpful in sniffing out nonsense.
Alison: Not that I don’t find some pleasure in watching the two of you spar like this – but perhaps we should, as Russell suggests, stick to our own uni-verse, at least for now.
Russell: Good. So tell me, Hans. In what way is our world logically dependent on experience?
Hans: No one experiences this so-called “world” without using his or her mind or senses.
Russell: Are you saying simply that every experience of the world logically entails an experiencer, and thus that all of our experience is our experience?
Hans: It sounds a little obvious when you put it that way, but yes.
Russell: More than a little obvious; just one more tautology, in fact. This understanding of the mind-dependence of experience simply notes that I can’t imagine anything without using my imagination, or that, to paraphrase Berkeley, I can’t have a rock-without-the-mind in mind without using my mind!
Hans: Well, you can’t, can you?
Russell: Of course not! It would be tantamount to having and not having an experience at the same time. It is, once again, trivially true that to have the idea of rocks-without-the-mind in mind is to have it in mind. But should we conclude on this basis alone that rocks are logically, much less causally, dependent on mind for their nature or very existence? Nothing of the sort follows!
Alison: If I may, let me suggest that we could safely refer to “rocks-without-the-mind,” like
Kant’s rocks-in-themselves, as simply “rocks.”
Russell: I see no reason not to prefer that way of talking.
Alison: So, if I understand you, Russell, you’re claiming that the following is a very poor inference:
1. Rocks independent of our minds are not in our minds.
2. Therefore, we know of no independent rocks.
Russell: That is indeed an awful argument. It presumes falsely that independence entails unknowability, and it equivocates on what it means to have something in mind.
Alison: So you think something can be independent of our minds, in a modest and non-mysterious sense of the word “independent,” and yet we can know about it – and have it in mind?
Russell: Of course. I have a mind-independent rock in mind each time I think about one that exists outside of my mind! The silly argument above joins the solipsist in refusing to distinguish our admittedly mind-dependent thoughts of objects from the many independently real objects of thought.
Hans: Again you raise the specter of solipsism! More evidence that, in your rush to condemn my view, you’ve neglected to pause long enough to understand it!
Russell: So tell me, what is your view of these mind-independent rocks?
Hans: It should be perfectly obvious by now that I have no view of them whatsoever! I cautiously limit my claims to that which I can know, and I am in no position to say what rocks may or may not be like independent of my experience of them.
Russell: Aside from what they might be like, are you willing to affirm, how-ever cautiously, that the rocks you experience at least exist?
Hans: This impulse of yours to populate the world with like-minded theorists grows tiresome. My preference, as an agnostic with respect to these ontological matters, is to remain silent – if you would only let me.
Russell: I’m not actually convinced, Hans, that you are any kind of agnostic.
Hans: You are beginning to wear on my patience, Russell. Now you are telling me what I do and do not believe…?
Russell: Okay, Hans, I’m sorry. It’s nothing personal. Just tell me: are my critical remarks a kind of external constraint on your theorizing?
Hans: I am experiencing your challenges to my theory, yes; though like all such ultimately unknowable constraints, I cannot determine for certain whether they are arising from an external other, or simply from within my own experience.
Alison: I have to defend Russell on this one, Hans. You keep returning to what you call a modest variety of skepticism, and I think we all agree that we ought routinely to question many, if not all, claims to perceptual certainty. But what on earth could it mean to say that you might be the author of Russell’s challenges to your theory?
Hans: I make no claim to know the original source of these annoying challenges, though my current experience is such that attributing these constraints to the actions of “others” proves viable.
Alison: But, the scare-quotes notwithstanding, you are willing to admit that you are experiencing a constraint, since Russell so obstinately refuses to go along with your view?
Hans: I admit that freely.
Alison: So it would seem to follow that your constructive activity is not, in practice, wholly free and autonomous?
Hans: That seems a sensible speculation. When I hear Russell’s critical words and recognize them as “the words of Russell,” I am re-cognizing to myself elements of my previous experience that strike me as relevantly similar to the current experience of his words. The hypothesis, to borrow your term, Alison, that I am now conversing with the two of you, finds a home among the other elements of my experiential world that I currently embrace, including the construction of “others,” of language, and so on.
Alison: I think I can see where you’re coming from, Hans, but I confess it seems a bit convoluted.
Russell: That in itself is no crime, but I now see that what Hans calls his “experiential world,” like my own, is saturated with referents to a world that exceeds the limits of his experience.
Hans: How so?
Russell: Your “re-cognition” of me is a recognition of me, after all!
Hans: In typical imperialist fashion, your realist scruples are dictating to my agnosticism that it must make reference to objectively “real” entities resting beyond or outside of my experience of them. I see no reason at all to go there.
Russell: Do you honestly believe that the statement “I am experiencing you” is entirely ontologically agnostic; that it entails no substantive, positive commitments to a world independent of your experience?
Hans: Nothing within experience could serve as irrefutable evidence of that which purportedly lies beyond experience. Recall Huxley’s characterization of agnosticism as an epistemological, not ontological, paradigm: “In matters of the intellect do not pretend the conclusions are certain that are not demonstra-ted or demonstrable.” Speaking as an agnostic with respect to all matters metaphysical, I can have certain, rational access only to my experience of you, not to some unfathomable “mind-independent” you.
Alison: This strikes me as an example of what Russell just described as an equivocation on independence. How can you say that Russell purports to exist in some “unfathomable” realm? Russell is right here, and we see that you have just passed him the potatoes! He is clearly not totally independent of us, our conceptions, and our experience at the moment, but he is no less real for all of that.
Russell: That is precisely right, Alison. The sort of independence a realist claims for him- or herself or any object is not unqualified, raw independence, suggesting a complete and radical separation from any actual or possible act of cognition, in the fashion of Kant's noumena.
Hans: I take it that you would prefer to say that the world is “subject-independent” rather than “mind-independent”?
Russell: Exactly. What is at issue here is simply the knowable, actual independence of any object or state of affairs from any one knowing subject, not un-qualified independence from any mind whatsoever.
Hans: And, aside from my experience and knowledge of your supposed independence from me, just what is the added value of your “actual” independence?
Russell: Well, if what you suppose is not in this or any other instance true, then all of this coded talk of “experiencing and re-cognizing others” is little more than a fig-leaf hiding your naked solipsism.
Hans: Again you choose caricature over careful analysis.
Russell: Why fret over my critical words? If I’m not actually independent of you, simply construct for yourself a more accommodating interlocutor!
Hans: That’s just plain silly! We are never free to construct the world just as we please. As von Glasersfeld has said, “every individual’s abstraction of experiential items is constrained…by social interaction.”
Alison: So you grant the possibility that at least some aspect of these constraining others emanates from the world outside yourself?
Hans: That possibility follows directly from my agnosticism. These “others” may or may not be external to me. I just don’t know.
Alison: But Hans, how is it possible that others – especially critical others – are your constructions? If they were really and entirely so, wouldn’t their working at such cross-purposes to yours suggest a nasty case of mental imbalance?
Hans: Who knows in what genuine mental health consists? I’m agnostic about that, too. For all I know, my mental health demands that I construct antagonists with whom to dialogue in a spirited fashion. Who wants to play chess with himself?
Russell: Surely no one would ever be lonely if everyone else were an imaginary friend!
Alison: Enough, Russell. The open, agnostic position you now articulate, Hans, does strike me as an improvement over your earlier refusal, with von Glasersfeld, to reject as unspeakable all references to an extra-subjective world – a position that seems indistinguishable from the solipsistic “no access” view. Tell me, though, how is your modestly skeptical account of our knowledge any different, save for the proliferation of scare-quotes, from Russell’s claim that our thoughts may at times reflect the actual features of the external world?
Hans: As I’ve said several times now, constructivism rejects the idea that mind reflects, in mirror-like fashion, the constraints of the world. I prefer to say only that my knowledge fits whatever constraints I have so far experienced. And by the way, Alison, this meal is a great fit with my taste buds, for which I can’t thank you enough.
* * *
 See Devitt (1984), p. 43.
 Von Glasersfeld (1993), p. 55.
 See Post (2004), who shows this common anti-realist slogan to rest on the conflation of two distinct kinds of inferential justification.
 Maturana (1998), p. 32.
 Huxley (2005), pp. 245-6.
 Johnson (2005).
 Devitt (1984), ch. 1, coins the phrase “fig-leaf realism” to describe the minimalist claim that something, about which we can know absolutely nothing, exists independently of our experience.
 Von Glasersfeld (1989a), p. 126.