Saturday, February 02, 2008

Constructivism's Implication

Here's a dense and condensed draft of a paper I'm working on:

I will describe an implication of a constructivist view of knowledge. A central understanding of most constructivisms is that knowledge is created rather than discovered. The key difference between discovered knowledge and created knowledge is that with discovered knowledge there is something – nature, the way things are, human perceptions, facts, Reality, rightly applied methods of knowledge acquisition, the final consensus - that we attain or gradually approach which acts as a guarantor and adjudicator of right knowledge. For the constructivist and the believer in knowledge as a creation, the one way things are is not out there to be discovered using the right methods of inquiry. Instead, the very idea of “a way in which things are” and “what’s out there” are understood to be social, linguistic and historical constructions.

An implication of a constructivist view of knowledge is that changing what causes knowledge to be as it is changes knowledge. The genetic fallacy states that the genesis or origin of knowledge has no bearing on its validity. But if there is no ultimate adjudicator of valid knowledge or if one cannot be conclusively proven to be operative, then whatever alters the causes of knowledge having the character it has alters knowledge. We might hope that certain ultimate adjudicators would act as the validators of knowledge whether they are the right rules of reason, the way the world actually is or the confirmed results of scientific inquiry, but, as these are constructed conceptualizations subject to various interpretations and philosophical critiques, they cannot act as ultimate adjudicators of intellectual disputes. Without an unproblematic, neutral adjudicator of knowledge claims, all causes of knowledge can affect the validity of knowledge.

One cause or determinant of knowledge is the arational commitments of believers. For many important issues in academia and daily life there are fundamental differences that rest on a believer’s assumptions, commitments or so-called “rational intuitions.” Many important convictions are not rationally adjudicable and so are due to arational causes. According to the genetic fallacy the psychological and biographical causes of a person’s beliefs play no role in the validity of those beliefs. But on a constructivist view of knowledge, since there is no ultimate adjudicator of validity in these disputed cases, the validity of a proffered piece of knowledge is affected by the psychological and biographical causes of that knowledge. A change in psyche or biography can alter the determination of validity by altering what individuals and, through accretion, groups deem valid knowledge.

If knowers cannot conclusively prove that their view is in keeping with what’s objectively true or right, then validity is a contingent affair affected by whatever causes knowledge to have its current character. If knowledge is constructed, if it is made and not found; then what alters that making alters knowledge. Therefore, whether it is rational argumentation, persuasive rhetoric, a moving experience, changes in social structure, or any other cause of knowledge, these all affect what we understand to be our knowledge.


Stephen said...

One proofing note: knower's -- should that be knowers?

As to the first reading, what about a text commonly "known".


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

If knowledge was confined to acknowledging that it is a question that was most likely asked in a sonnett by Shakespeare, what within that answer would represent knowledge as an interplay between me and the sentence?

I am not a philosopher by training but I think I am probably what used to be called a nominalist. Tending to think that things do have an actuality in themselves. This hardly preclydes an understanding of the observer and a sort of Nietszchean unwillingness to concede that one can really know something or anything.

Best, S

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Stephen,

When I saw your name I thought of that other Steven Rose, the biologist.

I don't understand the Shakespeare reference.

I don't think you're a nominalist, at least by Simon Blackburn's definition in his dictionary of philosophy. He says a nominalist thinks that the only thing that things called the same name have in common is the fact that they are referred to with the same name.

But yes you could believe that things have an actuality in themselves and that we cannot really know something or anything. But then how would one know they do have an actuality in themselves. And also, saying we can't "really know something or anything" could be interpreted as scepticism, but I don't think you mean that.

Thanks for the nice plug for Bald Ambition at your website.


Zetetic_chick said...

Hi Jeff:

Very interesting your post. Philosopher Roberto Follari (expert in latinamerican postmodernism) thinks that knowledge (specially scienitific knowledge) is partially discoveried and partially constructed.

Science discovers laws of phenomena, but scientists construct the ways to perceive them. That perception and construction is strongly influenced by the socio-historical/economic context and the epistemological views.

It's explained in Follari's spanish articles, like the one titled "La ciencia como real maravilloso":

He's a professor of epistemology of social sciences at Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (Argentina).

Your thesis about the genetic fallacy is interesting. I think the only way we can have an "ultimate" adjudicator of objetivity is the basic consensus between intellectual disputants.

If we find an agreement about evidence, objetivity (or inter-subjetivity) criteria, etc. disputants will can evaluate the validity of any claim regardless of the personal beliefs of each.

In other words: personal beliefs will "colour" our interpretation of any claim or proposition; but it's logically possible for different (but not contradictory) beliefs to get a common ground to evaluate the same propositions. (But it's only possible while the beliefs of disputants don't be incompatible with each other).

If they're incompatible, maybe the controversy can't be resolved using argumentative discourse, because each side won't recognize the premises (or they'll interpret them differently).

Maybe, Kuhn's "paradigm inconmensurability" is applicable, as analogy, here.

best wishes

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Dear Zetetic,

I tend not to like the formulation that knowledge is partially discovered and partially created. That it is partially what's really out there, what's really true and partially what we add to it. It creates a lot of philosophical problems because the quest to get more of what's really out there, the truth, remains, and all kinds of philosophical problems can be generated, such as: What's the nature of that discovered stuff that's really out there? Which parts do we add and which parts are added to?

Instead I'd use the distinction as referring to what we agree on - that's called what's discovered - and what we add - that being called our perspective. And these two can change.

Like you say later, there is a consensus or agreement on certain facts, evidence, criteria and then we call that what we know and then there is what is disputed and we try to show that our position in the dispute is validated by the things we agree upon, the things that we say we "know". But all these things can change depending on the conversation and over time. We may think we agree at one point and then the conversation moves and a fissure opens and we have to clarify or debate what we thought we knew (agreed upon).

So the discussion and knowledge is continually constructed and reconstructed. But we don't notice this because we generally agree on a lot and call this what we all know and experience it as how the world just is.

Sorry I don't read Spanish so I can't read Follari.

Zetetic_chick said...


Which is the "ultimate" implication s of constructivism? I think the first one is the concept of truth as relative to the created knowledge of a specific epoch. If it's correct, it follows:

a)Objectivity should be sustituted by inter-subjetivity (or consensus) as a non-absolute adjudicator of valid knowledge.

b)Truth isn't discoveried, but created as a product of consensus. Only there is truth when the proposition correspond to the relative (not absolute) consensus. (If the latter change, truth and knowledge change too)

c)Constructivism is, in itself, a creation. According to that creation, the proposition "all knowledge is created" is truth.

Problem with the last implication is: The vality of the basic constructivist's thesis rest on conformity with the facts (actual philosophical disagreements, the inexistence of a theory of truth, etc), or on the contrary, on the conformity with the constructivism's consensus about the relative truth of created knowledge?

If it's the former, contrustivism seems to be self-defeating (because it's based on a objetive, not created truth or fact); if it's the latter, constructivism seems to be not more truth than other philosophical systems, and not valid reason is there to choose it with preference to others systems.

Also, if philosophers agree that constructivism is false (and it dissapears from literature and knowledge), its basic thesis would be false too (and, as consequence, is false that there is not an ultimate adjudicator of truth) Is there any other way to refute constructivism?

What do you think? Did I misrepresent the constructivism's position? Am I only playing with words?

Dr. Puck said...

Just because a position causes philosophical problems doesn't make the position incorrect.

It seems constructivism is more secure as a psychological concept concerned with the nature of experience and learning, than it possibly could be as a philosophical concept.

That there exist different modes for knowledge creation and verification doesn't seem controversial at all from the perspective of psychology.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

To Dr. Puck,

"Just because a position causes philosophical problems doesn't make the position incorrect."

Well, it depends upon the seriousness of the philosophical problems. If the problem is a blatant or fundamental contradiction then that's pretty serious. Or if the problem is that the position contradicts important evidence, that is a problem.

I think we would like to say that serious philosophical problems for a position suggest that the position is "incorrect," or needs work.

"It seems constructivism is more secure as a psychological concept concerned with the nature of experience and learning, than it possibly could be as a philosophical concept."

Yes, it could be more secure as a psychological concept and may be useful in describing the way people perceive and acquire knowledge. But some people may want to ask further about knowledge in general and then they would be led to the perhaps less secure answers that philosophers give and debate.

"That there exist different modes for knowledge creation and verification doesn't seem controversial at all from the perspective of psychology."

Yes, if we want a descriptive taxonomy then there needn't be a controversy. But if we need to know who's right?, who knows better?, what should we do?, what's good?, how valid are our knowledge claims?, then we would need to ask philosophical questions that some try to answer using constructivism.