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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Radical Constructivism and the Revolutionary Mind

A classmate I had in college once said of classicists who malign jazz that they have a “univocal notion of being,” whereas jazz lovers have “an analogical notion of being.” He was referring to the Aristotelian Thomistic refutation of the Platonists. He was arguing that being or reality was approached through analogy rather than direct intuition of eternal ideas.  Reality is not fixed out-there apart of human intellectual operation. There is no perfect form of music or of anything. Reality appears only through human perception that uses images, models, and analogies—constructed forms. It distinguishes itself from a passive theory of knowing that assumes an independent reality in itself separate from human imagination and symbolic activity.

Recently a colleague accused my ethical theory of integrity as illogical and unrealistic because it was built on an understanding of existence as operating in the environment to fashion worlds, many diverse worlds. He thought I had gone bonkers. “if it quacks and looks like a duck, it is a duck,” said he. “An apple is an apple is an apple.” Yes, said I; but “apple” and “duck” have a long development in the Indo-European language tradition and take their meanings within a whole set of assembled relationships in the English speaking world. “Bonkers,” he responded.

In epistemology or the theory of knowing, I situate myself with those, like Ernst von Glasserfeld, who call themselves “radical constructivists.” I find John Dewey’s pragmatism, Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology, and Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper’s instrumentalism within the same vein. I argue that human knowing is a construction and reconstruction of the images, metaphors, or models we use to encounter the world and achieve reality. And I cite many a neuroscientist and evolutionary psychologist to prove it.

A fact (“factum’) is the construction of interacting minds. It is a model that fits our common experience, a formula that works to sum up and express the evidence of our perceptions, or a word that we use in common to standardize and pattern our sensations. It is “radical” construction because it follows on the deconstruction of previous patterns and habits of thinking. However, it does not destroy the past, but transforms it into the new mode and model of thought.

I don't like to divide the world into twos: liberals and conservatives, good guys and bad guys, citizens and barbarians, christians and heretics, clean and unclean, and so on. Doing so neglects the complexity of life and the multiple tensions of human existence among which are past and future, interior and exterior, self and other--the Kantian mind categories of space, time, and self. Also it confuses economy where life's needs are met, culture where we assert and make meaning, and politics where we act together in common space. It's too simple, uncritical, and too absolute.

But that's just it. Those who see the world in terms of either/or lack the subtlety, ambiguity, and irony of our humanity. They are the "realists" with a univocal notion of being. Let me define "realist" as that mode of thinking in which thinking tries to mirror or correspond to the reality out-there. Things are there and give off their essences to the open, receiving mind. All you have to do as a realist is look. Realists are distinguished from "constructivists" who think that knowing is a dialogue between the organism and it's environment through, in the case of humans, symbols (images, words, formulas, models) that are fashioned to adapt the organism to its environment and the environment to the organism. Now this division of minds explains a lot to me including all the other manufactured dualities.

I believe that this mind, the radical constructivist theory of knowing, separates the progressive revolutionary from the true believer of the absolute mind. The absolute mind falls into either idolatry where the word is venerated as unchanging truth that cannot be transformed into a more complex and inclusive model. Or iconoclasm where all past words and formulas are disdained and destroyed, wiped out in favor of some discontinuous ideal that has been revealed from outside.

The true progressive revolutionary mind is that of the early Marx and Mao, not the Marx interpreted by Engels, not the Mao of the Cultural Revolution. It is the mind of Socrates before Plato and Jesus before the Fathers of the Church. This mind accepts the founding documents, whether Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Upanishads, or Constitution, as living developing words, not dead and embalmed.

The difference between the two minds, realist and constructive, is significant. In the realist mind, one shifts responsibility to the divine or the demonic. In the mind of reconstruction, one accepts responsibility.  As Von Glasserfeld says: “Indeed, one need not enter very far into constructivist thought to realize that it inevitably leads to the contention that man – and man alone – is responsible for his thinking, his knowledge and, therefore, also for what he does. Today, when behaviorists are still intent on pushing all responsibility into the environment, and sociobiologists are trying to place much of it into genes, a doctrine may well seem uncomfortable if it suggests that we have no one but ourselves to thank for the world in which we appear to be living. That is precisely what constructivism intends to say – but it says a good deal more. We build that world for the most part unawares, simply because we do not know how we do it. That ignorance is quite unnecessary. Radical constructivism maintains – not unlike Kant in his Critique – that the operations by means of which we assemble our experiential world can be explored, and that an awareness of this operating … can help us do it differently and, perhaps, better.“[i]

The progressive revolutionary mind accepts, indeed takes, responsibility for her world and helps others to see that they too create the world that will sustain and further humanity or destroy it.


[i] http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/EvG/papers/070.1.pdf

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