[Editor’s Note: From Wikipedia,  “Constructivist epistemology is an epistemological perspective in philosophy about the nature of scientific knowledge. Constructivists maintain that scientific knowledge is constructed by scientists and not discovered from the world. Constructivists argue that the concepts of science are mental constructs proposed in order to explain sensory experience. Another important tenet of Constructivist theory is that there is no single valid methodology in science, but rather a diversity of useful methods. Constructivism opposed to positivism, which is a philosophy that holds that the only authentic knowledge is based on actual sense experience and what other individuals tell us is right and wrong…a basic presupposition of constructivism is that Reality-As-It-Is-In-Itself (Ontological Reality) is utterly incoherent as a concept, since there is no way to verify how one has finally reached a definitive notion of Reality.”

Part 1

First, trying to avoid polemic excess, I set a minimal perspective frame for the rise and significance of constructivism, and some references for deeper and wider explorations. The 20th Century has seen exponential growth of virtually everything from population and knowledge, to technology and entropy.

Fatefully, with the explosive growth of science when quantum mechanics and relativity were forming around 1900, physicists were stunned to find long accepted meanings of the reality of material substance, accepted for millennia, inexplicably and deeply undermined!

As these radical new experimental facts were confirmed, they enabled us to make stuff like atom bombs, transistors, proteomics and terabyte thumb drives! Conflicts between long held traditions and philosophies raged on while these new technologies directly impacted peoples daily lives toward a consumer culture. C.P. Snow famously wrote about two cultures where technical and scientific language contrasted with the arts and humanities such that important discussions between them did not work well.

The sudden rise of technology so transformed the individual experience that many felt the power of science could answer all the questions of the ages. The word ”scientism” describes a significant population, even including some scientists. The range of ideas called ‘science’ has divided into parts that energize the so called science wars.

It took hundreds of years for steam engines and electricity to seriously change language, work and social norms.

But what was almost Unthinkable when I was 30 years old (1954) is now ubiquitous;  things like cell phones, iPads, drones and GM food. Now in technically advanced cultures, profound developments like epigenetics are reflecting vital new emergent understandings with concomitant novel vocabulary/language.

Now that many of these radical new ideas and devices are globally commonplace, social patterns are emerging that suggest an updated language/epistemology to accommodate both our emerging digisphere as well as more complex and subtle personal identities invisibly generating new social norms, which are far too complex and globally distributed to measure, understand or predict.

That our current language, especially about our human condition, is deeply obsolete is discussed in depth in Lakoff’s 1999 600 page masterwork: Philosophy in the Flesh

      “[1] The mind is inherently embodied.

      [2] Thought is mostly unconscious.

      [3] Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

      ….More than two millennia of a priori philosophical speculation about these aspects of reason are over. “

Lakoff is one of many scholars writing about the necessity, for our stage of cultural evolution, to update language/logic forms commensurate with our knowledge and times.

I include Lakoff’s work under my umbrella term Constructivism. In a conversation at U.C. Berkeley with Lakoff, I talked about Krippendorff and Heinz von Forester and he said “those are my people”. But as I comment elsewhere here, a sufficiently inclusive name is not yet stabilized and there are important unresolved questions on my side of the science wars.

Groking the very fabric of experience as a constructivist, is like reversing what man has done for thousands of years… assuming an objective world which is the center of the universe. That one part of this is today easy, maybe a clue about what needs to be understood.

This is understandably ‘a bridge too far’ for most souls. But remember that Ptolemy ruled for millennia and I’m not arrogant enough to say it could not happen to ‘us’, the cognoscenti ^o^!

The fact is that physical science has now proved not only that “things are not what they seem” but, at base, ultimately incomprehensible for the embodied human mind.

Richard Feynman, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

In 1900, Max Planck in desperation, abandoned received belief at the time to achieve a transformative insight enabling physicists to perform today’s marvels with advanced mathematics. We only know that future quantum mechanics enable us to do stuff never before possible.

“Planck tried a mathematical trick. He presumed that the light wasn’t really a continuous wave as everyone assumed, but perhaps could exist with only specific amounts, or “quanta,” of energy. Planck didn’t really believe this was true about light, in fact he later referred to this math gimmick as “an act of desperation.” But with this adjustment, the equations worked, accurately describing the box’s radiation.”

I believe today’s situation suffers analogously; within the frame of dominant perceptions where we see the world as fixed, objective and ready-made for us to discover, we could switch to the simple fact that ”…all man can know is a joint phenomenon of the observer and the observed” I read this 800 page book “Science and Sanity” in 1948 but never had the name constructivism nor heard the justifications until the 1980s.

I offer more references below about ways of knowing but I prefer the umbrella name of Constructivism, exhaustively referenced below. My intellectual community has not yet negotiated one ‘name’ to cover the current range of ideas used by central players.



Part 2

New epistemological insights are emerging as the inevitable evolution of language forms accelerate. I suggest Klaus Krippendorff’s 2009 book ON COMMUNICATING On page 217 we read the heading: ”Discourse as Systematically Constrained Conversation”

“Over the last forty years, a slow epistemological revolution has been taking place… in philosophy… it realizes language not merely as a reflection of reality, a simple medium of representation, but as constitutive of reality.”

Krippendorff as a modern master will (if you are a serious explorer) take you on a great trip as he pulls diverse threads together from scholars like Wittgenstein, Rorty, Searle, Glasersfeld, Maturana and Varela to name a few I admire.


Now, I offer you a much easier, softer and wider canvas performed by a well respected scholar Ian Hacking ” The social construction of what?

I find he misses crucial distinctions but I include him for the didactic reason a reviewer says: “The reasoned and reasonable examination of the many constructionist positions make it particularly useful for those whose realist bias makes it impossible for them to peruse an actual constructionist text. Hacking understands that the debate goes much deeper than this, but his overview of the nominal issues is also a valuable contribution to the raging debate. Recommended for any and all interested in the science/culture wars.”

Here’s a review of Hacking from the Atlantic magazine by a favorite writer of mine Richard Rorty.

“Hacking’s book is an admirable example of both useful debunking and thoughtful and original philosophizing — an unusual combination of good sense and technical sophistication. After he has said his say about the science wars, Hacking concludes with fascinating essays on, among other things, fashions in mental disease, the possible genesis of dolomitic rock from the activity of nanobacteria, government financing of weapons research, and the much-discussed question of whether the Hawaiians thought Captain Cook was a god. In each he makes clear the contingency of the questions scientists find themselves asking, and the endless complexity of the considerations that lead them to ask one question rather than another. The result helps the reader see how little light is shed on actual scientific controversies by either traditionalist triumphalists or postmodernist unmaskers.”

Another important figure is Ernst von Glasersfeld with, IMO, the best introductory basic paper I know on Radical Constructivism.

‘Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer’. This von Forester quote is on page 7 and page 11, the last paragraph, Glasersfeld makes for me the salient point about Responsibility which I find warrants a crucial and essential rationale and role for advocating constructivist language that ineluctably includes responsibility. My emphasis:

“It is clear that fundamentalists, who claim to possess the one and only ‘truth’, cannot abide such a notion. And among the scientifically minded the reluctance may spring from the fact that to see the construction of theories as based on autonomous abductions and conceptual assimilation brings with it the realization that the responsibility for the gained knowledge lies with the constructor. It cannot be shifted to a pre-existing world. This deprives scientists of the comforting belief that what they do, can simply be justified as steps necessary for the growth of knowledge. The awareness that it is they who are responsible for their theoretical models and thus at least to some extent for actions based on them, might change the widely held belief that the direction of scientific research must not be fettered by ethical considerations.”

Glasersfeld’s definitive book on the subject is Radical Constructivism

A really fun book by a scientist. Inventing Reality! by Bruce Gregory who is Associate Director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“Using non-technical language, Inventing Reality tells how physicists struggle to invent a language powerful enough to talk about the world. The author draws on ingenious metaphors and concrete examples from everyday life to show how the language of physics works. In the process, he develops a powerful and provocative way of looking at the relationship between language and the world.”

Bertalanffy started thinking about whole systems in the 1920s. His 1968 “General Systems Theory is a great introduction to systems thinking which is definitively moving into the academy and IMO a vital and necessary way to overcoming the limits of reduction science. While reduction is still a vital part in today’s world, systems thinking is now necessary for dealing with complexity and chaos in interacting systems. And a serious confusion about the difference leads too many good minds into that shibboleth “Scientism”.

For further, deeper explorations: http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/key.html and



8 Responses

  1. Ray Lopez says:

    Burl this is a very good article. You did a great job of covering a set of very difficult ideas very concisely.

    Robert Martins comment above is much the way I feel, in that there is a very personal aspect to how one gets over the notion that we cannot know of an “objective reality.”

  2. Robert Martin says:

    My own experience in talking about the constructed nature of our individually experienced realities and of our collective reality is that we need many many ways of talking about these issues if we hope to engage others who take an objectivist view. To understand the main point–that it is we who construct our experience and we have no way to escape this–an individual
    has to allow herself to experience confusion and disorientation, and then to resolve the confusion by creating for herself her own understanding of what it means to say that we have no objective knowledge of the world–either through science or through our own experience.

    • burl grey says:

      So nice to see you here Robert.
      I completely agree with your comments!
      Particularly what I take to be the greatest difficulty: A deep fear of disorientation and confusion which I believe “they” cannot risk! Especially a highly accomplished individual embedded in a particular epistemic community. I’ve studied S. Brier’s 2008 book and greatly admire his intelligence and knowledge of the relevant vocabulary and history. He has completely mastered what everyone in our community says but cannot completely relinquish what he calls “…a partly independent ‘outside reality’ ” p.93!
      His considerable success could not be jeopardized by complete abandonment of ‘objective reality’. BTW, none of this detracts from his wonderful personality, character, etc..

      I’m actually busy working to propose an explanation within the frame of Identity Maintenance or equilibrium.
      As above I’m looking at viability within a given epistemic community- perhaps a Kuhnian paradigm.
      I included Ian Hacking above to try helping those who find this ‘off the wall’. I may try to use Goodman’s “fact fiction and forcast” and LOF ^o^ Far too complex for more of this here.

  3. burl grey says:

    I like your “broader context” comment, because I believe “context” is either everything or almost so. Indeed, my entire article was a flawed attempt to set a sufficient context, for grokking the distinction between (an independent reality-out there’) as in your comment “Objectivity.. delusion of observation sans observer.” and what I believe is that joint product of what we do to experience the world. [“A” world]

    I think it’s definitional that we all bring our individual ‘contexts’ to everything we do.
    And with the overwhelming majority of us presupposing a world – independent of what we do – the profound and unwelcome change from that objective reality the physicists had to abandon, to accepting our limitations of reporting our experience as biological organisms, albeit, with such incredible powers we’ve transformed ‘the world’, it’s pretty hard to be humble ^o^ There is an approach to your frustation with G.S. Brown’s “Laws of Form” that B. Russell said he was glad to see before he died. Resolving the paradon of self reference.

  4. Anthony says:

    Hi Burl,

    I did read the Krippendorff quote. Unfortunately, I am missing the broader context in which he made these remarks. On the one hand there’s the construct (what we can formally represent), and on the other there is that which allows for the existence of the construct. The former is a convenient definition of “reality”, while the latter is something we cannot even point to, let alone describe; and that is frustrating as hell. I guess that’s why it’s called metaphysics.

  5. burl grey says:

    Hi Anthony, Thanks for commenting.
    In what I call my intellectual community http://www.asc-cybernetics.org/ there’s a bright, accomplished scholar in Copenhagen who does not agree that Constructivism is a coherent position. So it would appear it is not exactly easy. Did you take particular note of Krippendorff’s comment in my part 2 “…language as constitutive of reality”? If so, could that serve as a central thesis? I did have a larger point which failed partly because the Editor’s wikipedia definition as well as deleting my word “Responsibility” in the title. Which is the larger point I did not make well. I did quote Glassersfeld on that point.

  6. Anthony says:

    It’s hard to discern your central thesis. I kept thinking it would become clear. That never really happened. I do love this quote though: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” Thanks for sharing.

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