Constructivist epistemology

Constructivist epistemology

Constructivist epistemology is an epistemological perspective in philosophy about the nature of scientific knowledge[1]. Constructivists maintain that scientific knowledge is constructed by scientists and not discovered from the world. Constructivists claim that the concepts of science are mental constructs proposed in order to explain our 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[2]. Constructivism is thus opposed to positivism, which is a philosophy that holds that the only authentic knowledge is that which is based on actual sense experience and what other individuals tell us is right and wrong.



Constructivism has roots in chemistry, education and social constructivism. Constructivism criticizes objectivism, which embraces the belief that a human can come to know external reality (the reality that exists beyond one's own mind). Constructivism holds the opposite view, that the only reality we can know is that which is represented by human thought (assuming a disbelief or lack of faith in a superhuman God). Reality is independent of human thought, but meaning or knowledge is always a human construction.[3]

Constructionism and constructivism are often used interchangeably. It is believed by constructivists that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are socially constructed. Kant, Garns, and Marx were among the first to suggest such an ambitious expansion of the power of ideas to inform the material realities of people's lives.[citation needed]

The expression "Constructivist epistemology" was first used by Jean Piaget, 1967, with plural form in the famous article from the "Encyclopédie de la Pléiade" Logique et Connaissance scientifique or "Logic and Scientific knowledge", an important text for epistemology. He refers directly to the mathematician Brouwer and his radical constructivism.

Moreover, in 1967, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann published The Social Construction of Reality, which has initiated social constructionism.


Constructivism has many roots:

  • The thought of Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus (Everything flows, nothing stands still), Protagoras (Man is the measure of all things). Protagoras is clearly represented by Plato and hence the tradition as a relativist. The Pyrrhonist sceptics have also been so interpreted. (Although this is more contentious.)
  • After the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, with the phenomenology and the event, Kant gives a decisive contradiction to Cartesians’ epistemology that has grown since Descartes despite Giambattista Vico calls in "La scienza nuova" (the new science) in 1708 reminding that "the norm of the truth is to have made it".
  • The Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment's universalist tendencies involved an emphasis on the separate natures of races, species, sexes and types of human[citation needed].
  • Gaston Bachelard, who is known for his physics psychoanalysis and the definition of an "epistemologic obstacle" that can disturb a changing of scientific paradigm as the one that occurred between classical mechanics and Einstein’s relativism, opens the teleological way with "The meditation on the object takes the form of the project". In the following famous saying, he insists that the ways in which questions are posed determines the trajectory of scientific movement, before summarizing "nothing is given, all is constructed" : "And, irrespective of what one might assume, in the life of a science, problems do not arise by themselves. It is precisely this that marks out a problem as being of the true scientific spirit: all knowledge is in response to a question. If there were no question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself. Nothing is given. All is constructed.", Gaston Bachelard (La formation de l'esprit scientifique, 1934). While quantum mechanics is starting to grow, Gaston Bachelard makes a call for a new science in Le Nouvel Esprit scientifique (The new scientific spirit).
  • Paul Valéry, French poet (20th c.) reminds us of the importance of representations and action: "We have always sought explanations when it was only representations that we could seek to invent", "My hand feels touched as well as it touches; reality says this, and nothing more".
  • This link with action, which could be called a "philosophy of action", was well represented by Spanish poet Antonio Machado: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.
  • Ludwik Fleck establishes scientific constructivism by introducing the notions of thought collective (Denkkollektiv), and thought style (Denkstil), through which the evolution of science is much more understandable, because the research objects can be described in terms of the assumptions (thought style) that are shared for practical but also inherently social reasons, or just because any thought collective tends to preserve itself. These notions have been drawn upon by Thomas Kuhn.
  • Norbert Wiener gives another defense of teleology in 1943 "Behavior, intention and teleology" and is one of the creators of cybernetics.
  • Jean Piaget, after the creation in 1955 of the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva, first uses the expression "constructivist epistemologies" (see above). According to Ernst von Glasersfeld, Jean Piaget is "the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing" (in An Exposition of Constructivism: Why Some Like it Radical, 1990) and "the most prolific constructivist in our century" (in Aspects of Radical Constructivism, 1996).
  • Herbert Simon called « The sciences of the artificial » these new sciences (cybernetics, cognitive sciences, decision and organisation sciences) that, because of the abstraction of their object (information, communication, decision), cannot match with the classical epistemology and its experimental method and refutability.
  • Gregory Bateson and his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972).
  • George Kelly (psychologist) and his book The Psychology of Personal Constructs (1955).
  • Heinz von Foerster, invited by Jean Piaget, presented "Objects: tokens for (Eigen-)behaviours" in 1976 in Geneva at a Genetic Epistemology Symposium, a text that would become a reference for constructivist epistemology.
  • Paul Watzlawick, who supervised in 1984 the publication of Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? (Contributions to constructivism).
  • Ernst von Glasersfeld, who has promoted since the end of the 70s radical constructivism (see below).
  • Edgar Morin and his book La Méthode (1977–2004, six volumes).
  • Mioara Mugur-Schächter who is also a quantum mechanics specialist.
  • Jean-Louis Le Moigne for his encyclopedic work on constructivist epistemology and his General Systems theory (see "Le Moigne's Defense of Constructivism" by Ernst von Glasersfeld).
  • Niklas Luhmann who developed 'operative constructivism' in the course of developing his theory of autopoietic social systems, drawing on the works of (among others) Bachelard, Valéry, Bateson, von Foerster, von Glasersfeld and Morin.

Constructivism's concepts and ideas

The common thread among all forms of constructivism is that they do not focus on an ontological reality, but instead on a constructed reality.[citation needed] Indeed, 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. Talk of verification in this connection is beside the point. According to constructivism, one must already have Reality in mind—that is, one must already know what Reality consists of—in order to confirm when one has at last "hit bottom." Richard Rorty has said that all claims to Realism can be reduced to intuition (Consequences of Pragmatism, chs. 9, 11). The Realist/Anti-Realist debate can be reduced, in the end, to a conflict of intuitions: "It seems to us that..." vs "Well, it seems to us that..." A realist would not view the argument in this way, and would say that one of these is misled, that one group perceives correctly, and the other perceives incorrectly. Strict constructivists will attest that there is no way to confirm one way or another, since the goal of inquiry (Reality) must be assumed to be understood at the outset. Constructivism proposes new definitions for knowledge and truth that forms a new paradigm, based on inter-subjectivity instead of the classical objectivity and viability instead of truth. The constructivist point of view is pragmatic as Vico said: "the truth is to have made it".[citation needed]

In this paradigm, "sciences of the artificial" (see Herbert Simon) as cybernetics, automatics or decision theory, management and engineering sciences can justify their teaching and have a space in the academy as "real sciences".

Several scientists and researchers see a close connection between constructivism and modeling and simulation. A model is a purposeful abstraction and simplification of a perception of reality, captured as a formal but implementation independent specification of the resulting conceptualization of things, processes, and relation. The simulation implements the model, often on a digital computer. The result is a constructed reality in the computer from which new ideas can be generated. As these ideas, however, are rooted in the implementation of a model, hence being derived from a constructed reality, the principles are strongly connected with constructivism.

Constructivism and sciences

Social constructivism in sociology

One version of social constructivism contends that categories of knowledge and reality are actively created by social relationships and interactions. These interactions also alter the way in which scientific episteme is organized.

Social activity presupposes human beings inhabiting shared forms of life, and in the case of social construction, utilizing semiotic resources (meaning making and meaning signifying) with reference to social structures and institutions. Several traditions use the term Social Constructivism: psychology (after Lev Vygotsky), sociology (after Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, themselves influenced by Alfred Schütz), sociology of knowledge (David Bloor), sociology of mathematics (Sal Restivo), philosophy of mathematics (Paul Ernest). Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy can be seen as a foundation for Social Constructivism, with its key theoretical concepts of language games embedded in forms of life.

Constructivism and psychology

Constructivism and education

Joe L. Kincheloe has published numerous social and educational books on critical constructivism (2001, 2005, 2008), a version of constructivist epistemology that places emphasis on the exaggerated influence of political and cultural power in the construction of knowledge, consciousness, and views of reality. In the contemporary mediated electronic era, Kincheloe argues, dominant modes of power have never exerted such influence on human affairs. Coming from a critical pedagogical perspective, Kincheloe argues that understanding a critical constructivist epistemology is central to becoming an educated person and to the institution of just social change.

Kincheloe's characteristics of critical constructivism:

  • Knowledge is socially constructed: World and information co-construct one another
  • Consciousness is a social construction
  • Political struggles: Power plays an exaggerated role in the production of knowledge and consciousness
  • The necessity of understanding consciousness—even though it does not lend itself to traditional reductionistic modes of measurability
  • The importance of uniting logic and emotion in the process of knowledge and producing knowledge
  • The inseparability of the knower and the known
  • The centrality of the perspectives of oppressed peoples—the value of the insights of those who have suffered as the result of existing social arrangements
  • The existence of multiple realities: Making sense of a world far more complex that we originally imagined
  • Becoming humble knowledge workers: Understanding our location in the tangled web of reality
  • Standpoint epistemology: Locating ourselves in the web of reality, we are better equipped to produce our own knowledges
  • Constructing practical knowledge for critical social action
  • Complexity: Overcoming reductionism
  • Knowledge is always entrenched in a larger process
  • The centrality of interpretation: Critical hermeneutics
  • The new frontier of classroom knowledge: Personal experiences intersecting with pluriversal information
  • Constructing new ways of being human: Critical ontology

Constructivism and postmodernism

For some, social constructionism can be seen as a source of the postmodern movement, and has been influential in the field of cultural studies. Some have gone so far as to attribute the rise of cultural studies (the cultural turn) to social constructionism.

From a realist's point of view, both postmodernism and constructivism can be seen as relativist theories.

Constructivist trends

Cultural constructivism
Cultural constructivism asserts that knowledge and reality are a product of their cultural context, meaning that two independent cultures will likely form different observational methodologies. For instance, Western cultures generally rely on objects for scientific descriptions; by contrast, Native American culture relies on events for descriptions. These are two distinct ways of constructing reality based on external artifacts.
Radical constructivism
Ernst von Glasersfeld was a prominent proponent of radical constructivism, which claims that knowledge is the self-organized cognitive process of the human brain. That is, the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself, and since knowledge is a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data, it is impossible to know the extent to which knowledge reflects an ontological reality.
Critical constructivism
A series of articles published in the journal Critical Inquiry (1991) served as a manifesto for the movement of critical constructivism in various disciplines, including the natural sciences. Not only truth and reality, but also "evidence", "document", "experience", "fact", "proof", and other central categories of empirical research (in physics, biology, statistics, history, law, etc.) reveal their contingent character as a social and ideological construction. Thus, a "realist" or "rationalist" interpretation is subjected to criticism. Kincheloe's political and pedagogical notion (above) has emerged as a central articulation of the concept.
While recognizing the constructedness of reality, many representatives of this critical paradigm deny philosophy the task of the creative construction of reality. They eagerly criticize realistic judgments, but they do not move beyond analytic procedures based on subtle tautologies. They thus remain in the critical paradigm and consider it to be a standard of scientific philosophy per se.
Genetic epistemology
James Mark Baldwin invented this expression, which was later popularized by Jean Piaget. From 1955 to 1980, Piaget was Director of the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva.


"the norm of the truth is to have made it," or
"the true is precisely what is made"
"the true and the made are convertible"
  • Et, quoi qu’on en dise, dans la vie scientifique, les problèmes ne se posent pas d’eux-mêmes. C’est précisément ce sens du problème qui donne la marque du véritable esprit scientifique. Pour un esprit scientifique, toute connaissance est une réponse à une question. S’il n’y a pas eu de question, il ne peut y avoir de connaissance scientifique. Rien ne va de soi. Rien n’est donné. Tout est construit, Gaston Bachelard (La formation de l'esprit scientifique, 1934)
"And, irrespective of what one might assume, in the life of a science, problems do not arise by themselves. It is precisely this that marks out a problem as being of the true scientific spirit: all knowledge is in response to a question. If there were no question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself. Nothing is given. All is constructed."
  • On a toujours cherché des explications quand c’était des représentations qu’on pouvait seulement essayer d’inventer, Paul Valéry
"We have always sought explanations when it was only representations that we could seek to invent"
  • Ma main se sent touchée aussi bien qu’elle touche ; réel veut dire cela, et rien de plus, Paul Valéry
"My hand feels touched as well as it touches; that's reality, and nothing more"
  • Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself, Jean Piaget in "La construction du réel chez l'enfant" (1937)
  • "If the natives are in different worlds, how come we can shoot them?" Stephen Stich
  • "I was once accused by Rene Thom of being a constructivist, which I understand was worse than being called an empiricist; I replied that I took pride in it" Sydney Brenner 2010


Numerous criticisms have been leveled at Constructivist epistemology. The most common one is that it either explicitly advocates or implicitly reduces to relativism. This is because it takes the concept of truth to be a socially "constructed" (and thereby socially relative) one. This leads to the charge of self-refutation: if what is to be regarded as "true" is relative to a particular social formation, then this very conception of truth must itself be only regarded as being "true" in this society. In another social formation, it may well be false. If so, then social constructivism itself would be false in that social formation. Further, one could then say that social constructivism could be both true and false simultaneously.

Another criticism of constructivism is that it holds that the concepts of two different social formations be entirely different and incommensurate. This being the case, it is impossible to make comparative judgements about statements made according to each worldview. This is because the criteria of judgement will themselves have to be based on some worldview or other. If this is the case, then it brings into question how communication between them about the truth or falsity of any given statement could be established.

Social Constructivists[who?] often argue that constructivism is liberating because it either (1) enables oppressed groups to reconstruct "the World" in accordance with their own interests rather than according to the interests of dominant groups in society, or (2) compels people to respect the alternative worldviews of oppressed groups because there is no way of judging them to be inferior to dominant worldviews. As the Wittgensteinian philosopher Gavin Kitching[4] argues, however, constructivists usually implicitly presuppose a deterministic view of language which severely constrains the minds and use of words by members of societies: they are not just "constructed" by language on this view, but are literally "determined" by it. Kitching notes the contradiction here: somehow the advocate of constructivism is not similarly constrained. While other individuals are controlled by the dominant concepts of society, the advocate of constructivism can transcend these concepts and see though them. A similar point is made by Edward Mariyani-Squire[5]

even if Social Constructivism were true, there is nothing necessarily liberating about entities being socially constructed. There is not necessarily any political advantage to be gained by thinking of Nature as a social construction if, as a political agent, one is systematically trapped, marginalised and subdued by means of social construction. Further to this general theme, when one looks at much Social Constructivist discourse (especially that informed by Michel Foucault), one finds something of a bifurcation between the theorist and the non-theorist. The theorist always plays the role of the constructor of discourses, while the non-theorist plays the role of the subject who is constructed in a quite deterministic fashion. This has a strong resonance with the point already made about solipsistic theism - here the theorist, conceptually anyway, “plays God” with his/her subject (whatever or whoever that may be). In short, while it is often assumed that Social Constructivism implies flexibility and indeterminism, there is no logical reason why one cannot treat social constructions as fatalistic.[dubious ][cite this quote]

See also


  1. ^ Routledge 2000. Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. ^ Schofield, L. Critical Theory and Constructivism.
  3. ^ Crotty, M. (1998). The Foundations of Social Science Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process.
  4. ^ Kitching, G. 2008. The Trouble with Theory: The Educational Costs of Postmodernism. Penn State University Press.
  5. ^ Mariyani-Squire, E. 1999. "Social Constructivism: A flawed Debate over Conceptual Foundations", Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, vol.10, no.4, pp.97-125

Further reading

  • Devitt, M. 1997. Realism and Truth. Princeton University Press.
  • Gillett, E. 1998. "Relativism and the Social-constructivist Paradigm", Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, Vol.5, No.1, pp. 37–48
  • Joe L. Kincheloe (2001) "Getting beyond the Facts: Teaching Social Studies/Social Science in the Twenty-First Century." NY: Peter Lang.
  • Joe L. Kincheloe (2005) "Critical Constructivism Primer." NY: Peter Lang.
  • Joe L. Kincheloe (2008) "Knowledge and Critical Pedagogy." Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
  • Kitching, G. 2008. The Trouble with Theory: The Educational Costs of Postmodernism. Penn State University Press.
  • Mariyani-Squire, E. 1999. "Social Constructivism: A flawed Debate over Conceptual Foundations", Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, vol.10, no.4, pp. 97–125
  • Matthews, M.R. (ed.) 1998. Constructivism in Science Education: A Philosophical Examination. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Edgar Morin 1986, La Méthode, Tome 3, La Connaissance de la connaissance
  • Nola, R. 1997. "Constructivism in Science and in Science Education: A Philosophical Critique", Science & Education vol.6, no.1-2, pp. 55–83.
  • Jean Piaget (1967). Logique et Connaissance scientifique, Encyclopédie de la Pléiade.
  • Herbert Simon (1969). The Sciences of the Artificial 3rd Edition MIT Press (1996).
  • Slezak, P. 2000 "A Critique of Radical Social Constructivism", in D.C. Philips, (ed.) 2000. Constructivism in Education: Opinions and Second Opinions on Controversial Issues. The University of Chicago Press.
  • Suchting, W.A. 1992. "Constructivism Deconstructed", Science & Education, vol.1, no.3, pp. 223–254
  • Paul Watzlawick (1984). Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? (Contributions to constructivism), W W Norton & Co Inc; 1st edition.
  • Ernst von Glasersfeld (1987) The construction of knowledge, Contributions to conceptual semantics.
  • Ernst von Glasersfeld (1995) Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning.
  • Tom Rockmore (2008), On Constructivist Epistemology

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