Radical Constructivism

Knowing beyond epistemology

'Radical Constructivism' (see Fischer 1995) is part of a larger 'constructivist' movement in the philosophy and sociology of science (Schwandt 1994). Its founder and most prominent proponent is the American psychologist Ernst von Glasersfeld (e.g. 1987a; 1991; 1992a; 1995). Among his followers and critical supporters are Gebhard Rusch (1987; 1990), Siegfried Schmidt (1987) and Niklas Luhmann (1992; 1993). Glasersfeld's thinking is highly interdisciplinary, but it is mainly built on the work of the French psychologist Jean Piaget, as well as on insights from cybernetics, i.e. the study of self-contained systems (Glasersfeld 1994; Portele 1994). Piaget's studies on the cognitive development of children led to the often cited conclusion: "Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself" (Piaget 1937: 311). This means that knowledge is a self-organised cognitive process of the human brain; it is not aimed at a 'true' image of the 'real' world but at a viable organisation of the world as it is experienced. Similarly, cybernetics deals with continuously recursive, i.e. circular, processes of observing and learning, but from an entirely technical point of view. Self-regulating devices only know what they have sensed by feedback. A 'second order cybernetics' (Heinz von Foerster) in turn observes how such systems observe, and in this reflexive manner it includes the current observer in the field of study. Radical Constructivism is, if you will, 'second order knowledge', taking into account its own procedures too.

Radical Constructivism puts forward two main claims (Glasersfeld 1989: 162):

"(a) knowledge is not passively received but actively built up by the cognizing subject;
(b) the function of cognition is adaptive and serves the organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of ontological reality."

It is worth noting that Radical Constructivism differs from Darwinian models of evolutionary epistemology in that it does not propose that different constructed knowledges gradually converge and eventually will merge into one knowledge system representing 'the real world' in full. Radical Constructivists argue that all knowledge is constructed rather than discovered, and that it is impossible to tell (and quite unnecessary to know) if and to what degree knowledge reflects an 'ontological' reality. This is not to deny an ontological reality as such, but to deny that our knowledge has necessarily got anything to do with it. Both ontology and epistemology thus become irrelevant non-issues for scientists and other knowledge producers. It has been said that Radical Constructivism deals with "knowing without metaphysics" (Glasersfeld 1991), or 'post-epistemology' (Glasersfeld 1992b: 20). Niklas Luhmann speaks in a similar context of a De-ontologisierung der Realität (1993: 37). But this does not imply a complete relativism, or that 'anything goes' (Luhmann 1992: 177). All Radical Constructivists claim is that knowledge cannot be judged according to its representation of an ontological, or metaphysical, reality. There are, however, other criteria (see also Holtorf 1996).

Radical Constructivism holds that the 'fitting' of knowledge to our experiences, or its cognitive viability, is the key to evaluating competing knowledge claims and the mechanism by which we learn. Knowledge is therefore not adapted to the natural world, but the very world is adapted to our cognitive needs. Human knowledge about the world corresponds to—and is constrained by—reality as we experience and make sense of it. I have argued elsewhere (Holtorf 1995) that this process of making sense can be described as a process of interpreting in the light of a particular understanding or reception: "to know is to understand in a certain manner" (Johnson 1987: 206). Different understandings of reality might 'fit' equally well to different experiences, and thus prove equally viable (Glasersfeld 1987b: 141; 1987c: 199). Instead of a unique adaptation to a single reality, there are an infinite number of real experiences and therefore realities. According to Radical Constructivism, there is no unified world meant to be correctly understood by an observer; the traditional subject-object dualism is thus overcome (Rusch 1987: 218).

Knowledge and memory are closely related to each other; both do not reflect an ontological reality but are constructed according to their fitness and viability within the mind of the knowing/remembering subject. This viability of both knowledge and memory is to a large extent dependent on contingent social circumstances which partly, though not exclusively, define what does and what does not make sense to individuals in a given situation (Berger and Luckmann 1980; Glasersfeld 1991: 20f.; Frindte 1995; cf. Hodder 1993). But this does not alter the central tenet of Radical Constructivism that reality is constructed by cognitive operations of the human mind which tries to achieve an "equilibration in the cognizing subject's experiential world" (Glasersfeld 1986: 115; see also 1994).

Recently, Gebhard Rusch showed (1987) that Radical Constructivist claims about human cognition can be illustrated, and substantiated, by reference to recent biological, biochemical, biophysical, physiological, psychological, linguistic and sociological evidence. But Rusch rightly points out (1990: 71; see also Lohmann 1994) that this is in no way equivalent to an empiricism or realism smuggled in through the back door: Radical Constructivism cannot be proven by scientific knowledge which, according to the very same theory, does not represent an objective reality. What it means however is that, ironically, rigorous realists would possibly have to support Radical Constructivism due to empirical evidence (Rusch 1987: 212)!

If all knowledge is constructed in the mind and does not necessarily reflect the world, how does Radical Constructivism escape self-defeat? Radical Constructivism is also 'second order knowledge', knowledge about itself. It judges its own value against the same yardstick as that of all other knowledge: namely its cognitive viability, or whether it makes sense. Radical Constructivism escapes self-defeat, because it is reflexive and fully applicable to itself. Ernst von Glasersfeld writes (1991: 13, original emphasis):

"I would be contradicting one of the basic principles of my own theory if I were to claim that the constructivist approach proved a true description of an objective state of affairs. As I see it, Radical Constructivism merely provides a different way of thinking and its values will depend mainly on its usefulness in our experiential world".

The beauty of Radical Constructivism—how I know it anyway—is that it allows us to strip knowledge of its metaphysics. I like it, because it makes a lot of sense to me. But Radical Constructivism is very tolerant and modest towards alternative knowledge claims. If it does not make sense to you, there is no problem either. But you ought to be aware that if you decide that another theory seems to be more viable with your experiences in the world, and you thus adopt an alternative theory about the character of human (or scientific) knowledge, this would in fact prove the central assertion of Radical Constructivism, i.e. that human knowledge is evaluated according to its cognitive viability in the minds of individuals. The Radical Constructivist proposal may therefore prove irresistible indeed...

Knowing the Past

If knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is constructed rather than discovered, the notion of gaining knowledge about an ontological reality, past or present, cannot be maintained. All knowledge, no matter where, how, and by whom it is produced, ought to be discussed unrelated to an ontological reality (of which we know nothing).

The challenge this poses to archaeology (and indeed history) is twofold: first, if it is assumed for the present that knowledge and understanding are constructed and diverse, one should assume that this was also the case in the past; our task as archaeologists is then, as much as anything, to re-construct diverse past knowledge. The task of a truly 'cognitive' archaeology is not to search for origins of our own (superior, advanced) knowledge of the world, but to come to terms with different forms of knowledge. The question is how this can be achieved (Nünning 1992: 102f., cf. Rusch 1990).

Second, and more importantly, our own knowledge and understandings of the past are also constructed and reflect above all the present conditions under which we have constructed them (Nünning 1992: 97, 118; Rusch 1987: chapter 4.2). In fact, the whole concept of a 'past' is a cognitive and social construction that does not exist anywhere but in relation to the experiences of present-day human beings (Rusch 1987: 416–419). Note that I am not talking about mere biases of modern observers or simply different perspectives between different observers; I argue that knowledge (about the past) and reality (of the past) are two completely separate entities. Such a Radical Constructivist claim does not deny the existence of the past or of ancient monuments such as megaliths, but the possibility for us human beings to know with certainty the past "as it really was" (cf. Beckenbauer 1993). At least, we could never tell, because we cannot step outside the conditions of mind (and society) which determine our knowledge

From a Radical Constructivist perspective, both ontology and epistemology are redundant: it is irrelevant whether the past existed or not, as this has no effect on our knowledge of it, and how we can know the past is beside the point, as knowledge about the past evidently exists among people. A Radical Constructivist archaeology holds that (pre-)history and (pre-)historic objects, how ever people have seen and made sense of them, are constructions of the respective presents. It follows that academic archaeology of the present is just one of many possible ways to come to terms with the past, and to make sense of the material remains of the past (Holtorf forthcoming). No knowledge claim about the past, including those made by academic archaeology, can be privileged epistemologically over any other. (Pre-)History is a construction, no matter who constructs it, and all constructions of (pre-)history and its remains will have to be discussed on a par (Rusch 1987: 475f.; see also Holtorf 1995; Shanks and Hodder 1995). This second challenge of Radical Constructivism to archaeology clearly overshadows the first one, because no attempt to reconstruct past constructions can avoid the pitfall of being a construction of the present itself.

For a Radical Constructivist archaeology, I can see three main avenues of future research. All three tasks imply that archaeologists are not in the business of discovering original meanings of prehistoric processes or archaeological remains in the past. Instead they focus on what these processes or remains can mean to people in various receptions and under different conditions (cf. Olsen 1990: 197–202). One task is to keep making sense of the past ourselves, and to add more viable and useful constructions of the past and its remains to the existing ones (e.g. Tilley 1991), or to extend the cognitive scope of existing constructions (Rusch 1987: 237). It means to make the most of the situation we are in and get on with putting together some great constructions. This is what most orthodox studies (academic or not) currently seem to achieve. The other two tasks focus on processes of constructing the past rather than on the past itself. Studying how the past is constructed does not in any way alter the status of the knowledge gained—which is still that of a construction—but it can create viable knowledge about our present society (see Holtorf 1994). A second task is therefore to become self-reflective and study the constructions made by archaeologists, or how the past comes into being among academics. This is to focus on the history and sociology of the discipline, on discourse analysis, modes of writing and the deconstruction of current approaches, thus trying to understand what we do (e.g. Tilley 1990). A third possible task is to study the various receptions beyond the academic discipline of archaeology in which (pre-)history and its remains are, or were, constructed in society. This has not only increasingly social, political and ethical significance, but it may also help us to find a viable role for archaeologists in future society (Holtorf 1994; 1995; forthcoming).

I see this work as a construction which attempts to make sense of the past in the present, while it focuses at the same time on prehistoric, historic and other present meanings of ancient monuments. It is a construction of constructions.


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© Cornelius Holtorf