This I believe — my Constructivism explained

It is a great pleasure to finally share publicly here parts of the book I loved most out of my final exams reading list (and, maybe surprisingly, I loved quite a few), and which I come back to over and over again, making it uncontestedly the most influential book for my thinking that I read during my whole studies. It is „Acts of Meaning“ by Jerome Bruner, published in 1990 as an elaboration of a series of lectures, and was assigned for the exam in Cultural Psychology (thank you, Gabriele!).

It has so many important things to say about science, culture, and psychology that I believe it should be on every psychologist’s and non-psychologist’s bookshelf, but one part I like to refer non-psychologists to most frequently is about „relativism“, or as I prefer to say: Constructivism.

These are actually two parts, one on „epistemological relativism“ and one on „values relativism“, which have an insightful aside on motivation as an intermezzo, which I have omitted here.

If culture forms mind, and if minds make such value judgments, are we not locked into an inescapable relativism? We had better examine what this might mean. It is the epistemological side of relativism, rather than the evaluative, that must concern us first. Is what we know „absolute,“ or is it always relative to some perspective, some point of view? Is there an „aboriginal reality,“ or as Nelson Goodman would put it, is reality a construction?[31] Most thinking people today would opt for some mild perspectival position. But very few are prepared to abandon the notion of a singular aboriginal reality altogether. Indeed, Carol Feldman has even proposed a would-be human universal whose principal thesis is that we endow the conclusions of our cognitive reckonings with a special, „external“ ontological status.[32] Our thoughts, so to speak, are „in here.“ Our conclusions are „out there.“ She calls this altogether human failing „ontic dumping,“ and she has never had to look far for instantiations of her universal. Yet, in most human interaction, „realities“ are the results of prolonged and intricate processes of construction and negotiation deeply imbedded in the culture.

Are the consequences of practicing such constructivism and of recognizing that we do so as dire as they are made to seem? Does such a practice really lead to an „anything goes“ relativism? Constructivism’s basic claim is simply that knowledge is „right“ or „wrong“ in light of the perspective we have chosen to assume. Rights and wrongs of this kind–however well we can test them–do not sum to absolute truths and falsities. The best we can hope for is that we be aware of our own perspective and those of others when we make our claims of „rightness“ and „wrongness.“ Put this way, constructivism hardly seems exotic at all. It is what legal scholars refer to as „the interpretive turn,“ or as one of them put it, a turning away from „authoritative meaning.“

Richard Rorty, in his exploration of the consequences of pragmatism, argues that interpretivism is part of a deep, slow movement to strip philosophy of its „foundational“ status.[33] He characterizes pragmatism–and the view that I have been expressing falls into that category–as „simply anti-essentialism applied to notions like ‚truth,‘ ‚knowledge,‘ ‚language,‘ ‚morality‘ and other similar objects of philosophical theorizing,“ and he illustrates it by reference to William James’s definition of the „true“ as „what is good in the way of belief.“ In support of James, Rorty remarks, „his point is that it is of no use being told that truth is ‚correspondence with reality‘ … One can, to be sure, pair off bits of what one takes the world to be in such a way that the sentences one believes have internal structures isomorphic to relations between things in the
world.“ But once one goes beyond such simple statements as „the cat is on the mat“ and begins dealing with universals or hypotheticals or theories, such pairings become „messy and ad hoc.“ Such pairing exercises help very little in determining „why or whether our present view of the world is, roughly, the one we should hold.“ To push such an exercise to the limit, Rorty rightly insists, is „to want truth to have an essence,“ to be true in some absolute sense. But to say something useful about truth, he goes on, is to „explore practice rather than theory … action rather than contemplation.“ Abstract statements like „History is the story of the class struggle“ are not to be judged by limiting oneself to questions like „Does that assertion get it right?“ Pragmatic, perspectival questions would be more in order: „What would it be like to believe that?“ or „What would I be committing myself to if I believed that?“ And this is very far from the kind of Kantian essentialism that searches for principles that establish the defining essence of „knowledge“ or „representation“ or „rationality.„[34]

Let me illustrate with a little case study. We want to know more about intellectual prowess. So we decide, unthinkingly, to use school performance as our measure for assessing „it“ and predicting „its“ development. After all, where intellectual prowess is concerned, school performance is of the essence. Then, in the light of our chosen perspective, Blacks in America have less „prowess“ than Whites, who in their turn have slightly less than Asians. What kind of finding is that, asks the pragmatic critic? If goodwill prevails in the ensuing debate, a process of what can only be called deconstructing and reconstructing will occur. What does school performance mean, and how does it relate to other forms of performance? And about intellectual prowess, what does „it“ mean? Is it singular or plural, and may not its very definition depend upon some subtle process by which a culture selects certain traits to honor, reward, and cultivate–as Howard Gardner has proposed?[35] Or, viewed politically, has school performance itself been rigged by choice of curriculum in such a way as to legitimize the offspring of the „haves“ while marginalizing those of the „have nots“? Very soon, the issue of what „intellectual prowess“ is will be replaced by questions of how we wish to use the concept in the light of a variety of circumstances–political, social, economic, even scientific.

That is a typical constructivist debate and a typical pragmatic procedure for resolving it. Is it relativism? Is it the dreaded form of relativism where every belief is as good as every other? Does anybody really hold such a view, or is relativism, rather, something conjured up by essentialist philosophers to shore up their faith in the „unvarnished truth“–an imaginary playmate forever assigned the role of spoiler in the game of pure reason? I think Rorty is right when he says that relativism is not the stumbling block for constructivism and pragmatism. Asking the pragmatist’s questions–How does this view affect my view of the world or my commitments to it?–surely does not lead to „anything goes.“ It may lead to an unpacking of presuppositions, the better to explore one’s commitments.

In his thoughtful book The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford notes that cultures, if they ever were homogeneous, are no longer so, and that the study of anthropology perforce becomes an instrument in the management of diversity.[36] It may even be the case that arguments from essences and from „aboriginal reality,“ by cloaking tradition with the mantle of „reality,“ are means for creating cultural stagnation and alienation. (p. 24–27)


Both the irrationalist and the rationalist approaches to values miss one crucial point: values inhere in commitment to „ways of life,“ and ways of life in their complex interaction constitute a culture. We neither shoot our values from the hip, choice-situation by choice-situation, nor are they the product of isolated individuals with strong drives and compelling neuroses. Rather, they are communal and consequential in terms of our relations to a cultural community. They fulfill functions for us in that community. The values underlying a way of life, as Charles Taylor points out, are only lightly open to „radical reflection.„[40] They become incorporated in one’s self identity and, at the same time, they locate one in a culture. To the degree that a culture, in Sapir’s sense, is not „spurious,“ the value commitments of its members provide either the basis for the satisfactory conduct of a way of life or, at least, a basis for negotiation.[41]

But the pluralism of modem life and the rapid changes it imposes, one can argue, create conflicts in commitment, conflicts in values, and therefore conflicts about the „rightness“ of various claims to knowledge about values. We simply do not know how to predict the „future of commitment“ under these circumstances. But it is whimsical to suppose that, under present world conditions, a dogged insistence upon the notion of „absolute value“ will make the uncertainties go away. All one can hope for is a viable pluralism backed by a willingness to negotiate differences in world-view.

Which leads directly to one last general point I must make-one further reason why I believe that a cultural psychology such as I am proposing need not fret about the specter of relativism. It concerns open-mindedness–whether in politics, science, literature, philosophy, or the arts. I take open-mindedness to be a willingness to construe knowledge and values from multiple perspectives without loss of commitment to one’s own values. Open-mindedness is the keystone of what we call a democratic culture. We have learned, with much pain, that democratic culture is neither divinely ordained nor is it to be taken for granted as perennially durable. Like all cultures, it is premised upon values that generate distinctive ways of life and corresponding conceptions of reality. Though it values the refreshments of surprise, it is not always proof against the shocks that open-mindedness sometimes inflicts. Its very open-mindedness generates its own enemies, for there is surely a biological constraint on appetites for novelty. I take the constructivism of cultural psychology to be a profound expression of democratic culture.[42] It demands that we be conscious of how we come to our knowledge and as conscious as we can be about the values that lead us to our perspectives. It asks that we be accountable for how and what we know. But it does not insist that there is only one way of constructing meaning, or one right way. It is based upon values that, I believe, fit it best to deal with the changes and disruptions that have become so much a feature of modern life. (pp. 29–30)


31. See Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters, for a well-argued
statement of the philosophical foundations of this position.

32. Carol Fleisher Feldman, „Thought from Language: The Linguistic Construction of Cognitive Representations,“ in Jerome Bruner and Helen Haste, eds., Making Sense: The Child’s Construction of the World (London: Methuen, 1987).

33. Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972–1980
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

34. Richard Rorty, „Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism,“ in
Consequences of Pragmatism. Quotations from p. 162ff.

35. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

36. James Clifford, The Predicament ofCulture: Twentieth-Century
Ethnography, Literature, and Art
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1988).

40. Taylor, Sources of the Self.

41. Edward Sapir, „Culture, Genuine and Spurious,“ in Culture,
Language and Personality: Selected Essays
, ed. David G. Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956), 78–119.

42. B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1972).

What I like especially is that the argument doesn’t stop where many constructivist arguments unfortunately do stop, at convincingly dismantling our usual essentialist view of reality, but also has a very convincing alternative way of dealing with things, what it calls the „pragmatist’s question“.

Datum: Donnerstag, 19. Mai 2011 21:32
Trackback: Trackback-URL Themengebiet: English

Feed zum Beitrag: RSS 2.0 Kommentare und Pings geschlossen.

Keine weiteren Kommentare möglich.