Constructivist epistemology

Constructivist epistemology

Constructivist epistemology is a branch in philosophy of science maintaining that natural science consists of mental constructs that are constructed with the aim of explaining sensory experience (or measurements) of the natural world. According to it, scientific knowledge is constructed by the scientific community, seeking to measure and construct models of the natural world.


  • Tenets 1
  • Origin of the term 2
  • History 3
  • Constructivism and sciences 4
    • Social constructivism in sociology 4.1
    • Constructivism in philosophy of science 4.2
    • Constructivism and psychology 4.3
    • Constructivism and education 4.4
    • Constructivism and postmodernism 4.5
  • Constructivist trends 5
    • Cultural constructivism 5.1
    • Radical constructivism 5.2
    • Critical constructivism 5.3
    • Genetic epistemology 5.4
  • Quotations 6
  • Criticisms 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


According to constructivists the world is independent of human minds, but knowledge of the world is always a human and social construction.[1] Constructivism opposes the philosophy of objectivism, which embraces the belief that a human can come to know the truth about the natural world not mediated by scientific approximations, with different degrees of validity and accuracy.

According to constructivists there is no single valid methodology in science, but rather a diversity of useful methods.[2]

Origin of the term

The term originates from psychology, education and social constructivism. 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.

Constructionism and constructivism are often used interchangeably, but should not be. Constructionism is an approach to learning that was developed by Papert; the approach was greatly influenced by his work with Piaget, but it is very different. Constructionism involves the creation of a product to show learning (see . 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.


Constructivism stems from a number of philosophies. For instance, early development can be attributed to 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.)

Following 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 calling in Scienza nuova ("New Science") in 1725 that "the norm of the truth is to have made it". The Enlightenment's claim of the universality of Reason as the only true source of knowledge generated a Romantic reaction involving an emphasis on the separate natures of races, species, sexes and types of human.

  • 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 century) 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).
  • J. L. Austin is associated with the view that speech is not only passively describing a given reality, but it can change the (social) reality it is describing through speech acts, which for linguistics was as revolutionary discovery as for physics was the discovery that measurement itself can change the measured reality.
  • Herbert A. 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 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 in philosophy of science

Thomas Kuhn argued that changes in scientists' views of reality not only contain subjective elements, but result from group dynamics, "revolutions" in scientific practice and changes in "paradigms".[3] As an example, Kuhn suggested that the Sun-centric Copernican "revolution" replaced the Earth-centric views of Ptolemy not because of empirical failures, but because of a new "paradigm" that exerted control over what scientists felt to be the more fruitful way to pursue their goals.

"But paradigm debates are not really about relative problem-solving ability, though for good reasons they are usually couched in those terms. Instead, the issue is which paradigm should in future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. [A decision is called for] and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise."
—Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . p. 157

The view of reality as accessible only through models was called model-dependent realism by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.[4] While not rejecting the idea of "reality-as-it-is-in-itself", model-dependent realism suggests that we cannot know "reality-as-it-is-in-itself", but only an approximation of it provided by the intermediary of models.[5] These models evolve over time as guided by scientific inspiration and experiment.

In the field of the social sciences, constructivism as an epistemology urges that researchers reflect upon the paradigms that may be underpinning their research, and in the light of this that they become more open to consider other ways of interpreting any results of the research. Furthermore, the focus is on presenting results as negotiable constructs rather than as models that aim to "represent" social realities more or less accurately. Norma Romm in her book Accountability in Social Research (2001) argues that social researchers can earn trust from participants and wider audiences insofar as they adopt this orientation and invite inputs from others regarding their inquiry practices and the results thereof.

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, some Native American cultures rely 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. This claims that knowledge is not a commodity which is transported from one mind into another. Rather, it is up to the individual to "link up" specific interpretations of experiences and ideas with their own reference of what is possible and viable. That is, the process of constructing knowledge, of understanding, is dependent on the individual's subjective interpretation of their active experience, not what "actually" occurs. Understanding and acting are seen by radical constructivists not as dualistic processes, but "circularly conjoined".[6]

Constructivist Foundations is a free online journal publishing peer reviewed articles on radical constructivism by researchers from multiple domains.

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 sciences, problems do not arise by themselves. It is, precisely, because all problems are posed that they embody the scientific spirit. 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; real means this, 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 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[7] 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 through them.

See also


  1. ^ Crotty, M. 1998. The Foundations of Social Science Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, Sage.
  2. ^ (Schofield, n.d.) Critical Theory and Constructivism.
  3. ^ Thomas S Kuhn (1966). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press.  
  4. ^ Eugene V. Koonin (2011). The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution. FT Press Science, a division of Pearson Education, Inc. p. 427.  
  5. ^ Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow (2011). The Grand Design. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 8.  
  6. ^
  7. ^ Kitching, G. 2008. The Trouble with Theory: The Educational Costs of Postmodernism. Penn State University Press.

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.
  • Friedrich Kratochwil: Constructivism: what it is (not) and how it matters, in Donattela Della Porta & Michael Keating (eds.) 2008, Approaches and Methodologies in the Social Sciences: A Pluralist Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 80-98.
  • 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 A. 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.
  • 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.
  • Romm, N.R.A. 2001. Accountability in Social Research, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

External links

  • Journal of Constructivist Psychology
  • Radical Constructivism
  • Constructivist Foundations